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Full text of "Margaret Atwood : vision and forms"

Margaret Atwood 
PR9199.3.A8 Z76 



vision and forms / 

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NEW COLLEGE OF CALIFORNIA (SF) 



PR 9199.3 .A8 Z76 1988 
Marqaret Atwood 



#17688 



DATE DUE 


BORROWER'S NAME 



















PR 

9199.3 
A8 
Z76 

1988 



#17688 

Margairet Atwood : vision and torme / 
edited by Kathryn VanSpanckeren and 
Jaa Garden Castro ; with an 
autobiographical foreword by Margaret 
Atwood* — Carbondale : Southern 
Illinois University Press, cl988« 
xxxif 269 p.f [8] p. of plates : col. 
ill. ; 23 CM. — (Ad feminaa) 

lacludes bibliographical references 
(p. 247-256) and index* 

i»17688 Gift:Milly Henry * * . 
ISBN 0-8093-1408-8 (alk. paper) 
1* Atwood, Margaret Eleanor, 1939- 
— Criticism and interpretation. 2. 

lomen and literature — Canada — History 

20th century. I. VanSpanckerent 
Kathryn* 1 1 . ^^ Castrot Jan Garden* 




19990629 



^17649305 NEWCxc 



88-6452r95 



DATE DUE 


















































































































































HIGHSMITH #4 


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Printed 

m USA 



ex / — ' 



Margaret Atwood 



Library of 

New College of Californio 




Ad Feminam: Women and Literature 

Edited by Sandra M. Gilbert 

Christina Rossetti 

The Poetry of Endurance 

By Dolores Rosenblum 

Lunacy ofLi^ht 

Emily Dickinson and the Experience of Metaphor 

By Wendy Barker 

The Literary Existence of Germaine de Stael 
By Charlotte Ho^sett 




.: J 



Margaret Atwood 

Vision and Forms 

Edited by Kathryn VanSpanckeren 
and Jan Garden Castro 

With an Autobiographical Foreword by 
Margaret Atwood 



B" Southern Illinois University Press 
Carbondale and Edrvardsville 



Copyright ©1988 by Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University 

All rights reserved 

Printed in the United States of America 

Edited by Curtis L. Clark 

Designed by Joyce Kachergis 

Production supervised by Linda Jorgensen-Buhman 

Publication of this volume has been made possible in part by funds provided by 
the Canadian Embassy, Washington, D.C. 

Margaret Atwood's foreword originally appeared under the title "Great 
Unexpectations," inMf., July-August 1987. Copyright Margaret Atwood. 

A longer version of Lorna Irvine's "The Here and Now of Bodily Harm" 
originally appeared under the title "Atwood's Parable of Flesh" in the author's 
Sub/Version (Toronto: ECW Press, 1986). Reprinted by permission of ECW Press. 

Jan Garden Castro's interview with Margaret Atwood is used by permission of 
American Audio Prose Library. Copyright 1983 American Audio Prose Library. 
All rights reserved. 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 

Margaret Atwood : vision and forms. 

(Ad feminam) 

Bibliography: p. 

Includes index. 

I. Atwood, Margaret Eleanor, 1939- — Criticism 
and interpretation. I. VanSpanckeren, Kathryn. 
II. Castro, Jan Garden. III. Series. 
PR9I99-3A8Z76 1988 8i8'.5409 88-6452 

ISBN 0-8093-1408-8 

The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of 
American National Standard for Information Sciences — Permanence of Paper 
for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39. 48-1984. /o^ 



To Paul B. Breslow and Jomo J. Castro 



Contents 



Ad Feminam: Women and Literature xi 

Sandra M. Gilbert 

Great Unexpectations xiii 

An Autobu>graphical Foreword 
Mar£iaret Atwood 

Acknowledgments xvii 

Introduction xix 

Kathryn VanSpanckeren 

A Margaret Atwood Chronology xxix 

1 Canlit/Victimlit i 
Survival and Second Words 

June Schlueter 

2 The Two Faces of the Mirror 12 
in The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle 

Pamela S. Bromberg 

3 Pil0rima£ie Inward 24 
Quest and Fairy Tale Motifs in Surfacing 

Elizabeth R. Baer 

4 In Search ofDemeter 35 
The Lost, Silent Mother in Surfacing 

Sherrill E. Grace 

5 The Transforming Eye 48 
Lady Oracle and Gothic Tradition 

Ann McMillan 



Vll 



viii Contents 

6 Life Before Man 65 
"Can Anything Be Saved?" 

Gayle Greene 

7 The Here and Now of Bodily H2irm 85 
Lorna Irvine 

8 Nature and Nurture in Dystopia loi 
The Handmaid's Tale 

Roberta Rubenstein 

9 Future Tense 113 
Making History in The Handmaid's Tale 

Arnold E. Davidson 

10 Weaving Her Version 122 
77?^ Homeric Model and Gender Politics in Selected Poems 
David Buchbinder 

11 Politics, Structure, and Poetic Development in Atwood's 
Canadian- American Sequences 142 
From an Apprentice Pair to "The Circle Game" to 
"Two-Headed Poems" 

Judith McCombs 

1 2 Rxal and Imaginary Animals in the Poetry 

of Mar_0aret Atwood 163 

Kathleen Vo£it 

13 Shamanism in the Works of Margaret Atwood 183 
Kathryn VanSpanckeren 

14 Sexual Politics in Margaret Atwood's Visual Art 205 
(With an Eight-Page Color Supplement) 

Sharon R. Wilson 

15 An Interview with Margaret Atwood 215 
20 April 1983 

Jan Garden Castro 

16 A Conversation 233 
Margaret Atwood and Students 

Moderated by Francis X. Gillen 



Contents ix 

Works Cited 247 

Notes on Contributors 257 

Index 261 



Ad Feminam: 
Women and Literature 



Ad Hominem: to the man; appealing to personal interests, prejudices, 
or emotions rather than to reason; an argument ad hominem. 

— American Heritage Dictionary 

Until quite recently, much literary criticism, like most humanistic 
studies, has been in some sense constituted out of arguments ad ho- 
minem. Not only have examinations of literary history tended to ad- 
dress themselves "to the man" — that is, to the identity of what was 
presumed to be the man of letters who created our culture's monu- 
ments of unaging intellect — but many aesthetic analyses and evalu- 
ations have consciously or unconsciously appealed to the "personal 
interests, prejudices, or emotions" of male critics and readers. As the 
title of this series is meant to indicate, the intellectual project called 
"feminist criticism" has sought to counter the limitations o( ad ho- 
minem thinking about literature by asking a series of questions ad- 
dressed ad feminam: "to the woman" — to the woman as both writer 
and reader of texts. 

First, and most crucially, feminist critics ask What is the rela- 
tionship between gender and genre, between sexuality and text- 
uality? But in meditating on these issues they raise a number of 
more specific questions. Does a woman of letters have a literature 
— a language, a history, a tradition — of her own? Have conven- 
tional methods of canon-formation tended to exclude or margin- 
alize female achievements.^ More generally, do men and women 
have different modes of literary representation, different defini- 
tions of literary production? Do such differences mean that dis- 
tinctive male- (or female-) authored images of women (or men), 
as well as distinctly male and female genres, are part of our intel- 
lectual heritage? Perhaps most important, are literary differences 

xi 



xii Ad Feminam: Women and Literature 

between men and women essential or accidental, biologically de- 
termined or culturally constructed? 

Feminist critics have addressed themselves to these problems 
with increasing sophistication during the last two decades, as they 
sought to revise, or at times replace, ad hominem arguments with 
ad feminam speculations. Whether explicating individual texts, 
studying the oeuvre of a single author, examining the permuta- 
tions of a major theme, or charting the contours of a tradition, 
these theorists and scholars have consistently sought to define lit- 
erary' manifestations of difference and to understand the dynam- 
ics that have shaped the accomplishment of literar\' women. 

As a consequence of such work, feminist critics, often employ- 
ing new modes of analysis, have begun to uncover a neglected fe- 
male tradition along with a heretofore hidden history of the 
literar\' dialogue between men and women. This series is dedi- 
cated to publishing books that will use innovative as well as tradi- 
tional interpretive methods in order to help readers of both sexes 
achieve a better understanding of that hidden histor\', a clearer 
consciousness of that neglected but powerful tradition. Reason 
tells us, after all, that if, transcending prejudice and special plead- 
ing, we speak to, and focus on, the woman as well as the man — if 
we think ad feminam as well as ad hominem — we will have a better 
chance of understanding what constitutes the human. 

Sandra M. Gilbert 



Great Unexpectations 

An Autobiographical Foreword 
Margaret Atwood 



In i960 I was nineteen years old. I was in third-year college in 
Toronto, Ontario, which was not then known as People City or 
The Paris of the Northeast; but as Hogtown, which was not an in- 
accurate description. I had never eaten an avocado or been on an 
airplane or encountered a croissant or been south of Vermont. 
Panty hose had not yet hit the market; neither had the Pill. We 
were still doing garter belts and repression. Abortion was not a 
word you said out loud, and lesbians might as well have been 
mythological hybrids, like Sphinxes; in any case I was quite cer- 
tain I had never met one. I wanted to be — no, worse — was deter- 
mined to be, was convinced I was — a writer. I was scared to death. 

I was scared to death for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I was 
Canadian, and the prospects for being a Canadian and a writer, 
both at the same time, in i960, were dim. The only writers I had en- 
countered in high school had been dead and English, and in univer- 
sity we barely studied American writers, much less Canadian ones. 
Canadian writers, it was assumed — by my professors, my contem- 
poraries, and myself — were a freak of nature, like duck-billed platy- 
puses. Logically they ought not to exist, and when they did so 
anyway, they were just pathetic imitations of the real thing. This es- 
timate was borne out by statistics: for those few who managed, de- 
spite the reluctance of publishers, to struggle into print (five novels 
in English in i960), two hundred copies of a book of poetry was 
considered average to good, and a thousand made a novel a Cana- 
dian best seller. I would have to emigrate, I concluded gloomily. I 
faced a future of scrubbing restaurant floors in England — where 



xui 



xiv Foreword 

we colonials could go, then, much more easily than we could to the 
United States — writing masterpieces in a freezing cold garret at 
night, and getting T.B., like Keats. Such was my operatic view of 
my own future. 

But it was more complicated than that, because, in addition to 
being a Canadian, I was also a woman. In some ways this was an 
advantage. Being a male writer in Canada branded you a sissy, but 
writing was not quite so unthinkable for a woman, ranking as it 
did with flower painting and making roses out of wool. As one 
friend of my mother's put it, trying to take a cheerful view of my 
eccentricity, "Well, that's nice dear, because you can do it at 
home, can't you?" She was right, as it turned out, but at that mo- 
ment she aroused nothing but loathing in my adolescent soul. 
Home, hell. It was garret or nothing. What did she think I was, 
inauthentic? However, most people were so appalled by my deter- 
mination to be a writer that no one even thought of saying I 
couldn't because I was a girl. That sort of thing was not said to me 
until later, by male writers, by which time it was too late. 

Strangely, no one was pushing early marriage, not in my case. 
Canada, being a cultural backwater, had not been swept by the 
wave of Freudianism that had washed over the United States in 
the fifties — Canadian women were not yet expected to be fe- 
cund and passive in order to fulfill themselves — and there were 
still some bluestockings around in the educational system, 
women who warned us not to get silly about boys too soon and 
throw away our chances. What my elders had in mind for me was 
more along academic lines. Something, that is to say, with a 
salary. 

But, since gender is prior to nationality, the advantages of being a 
Canadian woman writer were canceled out by the disadvantages of 
being a woman writer. I'd read the biographies, which were not en- 
couraging. Jane Austen never married Mr. Darcy. Emily Bronte died 
young, Charlotte in childbirth. George Eliot never had children and 
was ostracized for living with a married man. Emily Dickinson flit- 
ted; Christina Rossetti looked at life through the wormholes in a 
shroud. Some had managed to combine writing with what I consid- 
ered to be a normal life — Mrs. Gaskell, Harriet Beecher Stowe — but 
everyone knew they were second rate. My choices were between ex- 
cellence and doom on the one hand, and mediocrity and cosiness on 
the other. I gritted my teeth, set my face to the wind, gave up double 



Foreword xv 

dating, and wore horn-rims and a scowl so I would not be mistaken 
for a pufTball. 

It was in this frame of mind that I read Robert Graves's The 
White Goddess, which further terrified me. Graves did not dismiss 
women. In fact he placed them right at the center ofhis poetic the- 
ory; but they were to be inspirations rather than creators, and a 
funny sort of inspiration at that. They were to be incarnations of 
the White Goddess herself, alternately loving and destructive, 
and men who got involved with them ran the risk of 
disembowelment or worse. A woman just might — might, mind 
you — have a chance of becoming a decent poet, but only if she 
too took on the attributes of the White Goddess and spent her 
time seducing men and then doing them in. All this sounded a lit- 
tle strenuous, and appeared to rule out domestic bliss. It wasn't 
my idea of how men and women should get on together — raking 
up leaves in the backyard, like my mom and dad — but who was I 
to contradict the experts? There was no one else in view giving me 
any advice on how to be a writer, though female. Graves was it. 

That would be my life, then. To the garret and the T.B. I added 
the elements of enigma and solitude. I would dress in black. I 
would learn to smoke cigarettes, although they gave me head- 
aches and made me cough, and drink something romantic and 
unusually bad for you, such as absinthe. I would live by myself, in 
a suitably painted attic (black) and have lovers whom I would dis- 
card in appropriate ways, though I drew the line at bloodshed. (I 
was, after all, a nice Canadian girl.) I would never have children. 
This last bothered me a lot, as before this I had always intended to 
have some, and it seemed unfair, but White Goddesses did not 
have time for children, being too taken up with cannibalistic sex, 
and Art came first. I would never, never own an automatic 
washer-dryer. Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Kafka, and lonesco, I was 
sure, did not have major appliances, and these were the writers I 
most admired. I had no concrete ideas about how the laundry 
would get done, but it would only be my own laundry, I thought 
mournfully — no fuzzy sleepers, no tiny T-shirts — and such de- 
tails could be worked out later. 

I tried out the garrets, which were less glamorous than ex- 
pected; so was England, and so were the cigarettes, which lasted a 
mere six months. There wasn't any absinthe to be had, so I tried 
bad wine, which made me sick. It began to occur to me that maybe 



xvi Foreword 

Robert Graves didn't have the last word on women writers, and 
anyway I wanted to be a novehst as well as a poet, so perhaps that 
would let me off the homicide. Even though Sylvia Plath and 
Anne Sexton had been setting new, high standards in self- 
destructiveness for female poets, and people had begun asking me 
not whether but when I was going to commit suicide (the only au- 
thentic woman poet is a dead woman poet?), I was wondering 
whether it was really all that necessary for a woman writer to be 
doomed, any more than it was necessary for a male writer to be a 
drunk. Wasn't all of this just some sort of postromantic collective 
delusion? If Shakespeare could have kids and avoid suicide, then 
so could I, dammit. When Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir 
came my way, like shorebirds heralding land, I read them with 
much interest. They got a lot right, for me, but there was one 
thing they got wrong. They were assuring me that I didn't have to 
get married and have children. But what I wanted was someone to 
tell me I could. 

And so I did. The marriage and the children came in two lots — 
marriage with one, child with another — but they did come. This 
is the part that will sound smug, I suppose, but I also suppose it's 
not that much smugger than my black-sweatered, garter-belted, 
black-stockinged, existential pronouncements at the age of nine- 
teen. I now live a life that is pretty close to the leaves-in-the- 
backyard model I thought would have been out of bounds 
forever. Instead of rotting my brains with absinthe, I bake (dare I 
admit it?) chocolate chip cookies, and I find that doing the laun- 
dry with the aid of my washer-dryer is one of the more relaxing 
parts of my week. I worry about things like remembering Parents' 
Day at my daughter's school and running out of cat food, though 
I can only afford these emotional luxuries with the aid of some 
business assistants and a large man who likes kids and cats and 
food, and has an ego so solid it isn't threatened by mine. This state 
of affairs was not achieved without struggle, some of it internal — 
did an addiction to knitting brand me as an inauthentic writer? — 
but it was reached. The White Goddess still turns up in my life, 
but mainly as a fantasy projection on the part of certain male book 
reviewers, who seem to like the idea of my teeth sinking into some 
cringing male neck. I think of this as fifties nostalgia. 

As for writing, yes. You can do it at home. 



Acknowledgments 



Appreciation is expressed to the Canadian government for pro- 
viding, through its embassy in Washington, D.C., the Faculty Re- 
search Award that made the completion of this volume possible. 
We also thank Margaret Atwood for graciously granting permis- 
sion to quote from her published and archival material and to re- 
produce her watercolors. For use of Arvvood's archival material, 
including her watercolors, we acknowledge the permission of the 
Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. 
The art photographs are by Thomas Moore Photography, Inc., 
Toronto. Appreciation, finally, is expressed to the American 
Audio Prose Library (P.O. Box 842, Columbia, Missouri, 65205) 
where audio tapes of Jan Garden Castro's interview with Margaret 
Atwood are available. 

Special thanks are due to Marlyn Pethe and Mickey Wells, refer- 
ence librarians at the Merl Kelce Library at the University of 
Tampa; to Dorothy lorio, formerly of that library; to Ruth Cash, 
Secretary of the Humanities Division; and to Curtis L. Clark, Edi- 
tor, Southern Illinois Universitv Press. 



Introduction 



Margaret Atwood, acknowledged as a foremost Canadian author, 
is rapidly achieving world-class stature. At age forty-seven, she has 
published thirtv' books, including six novels, twelve volumes of poe- 
try, two books of short stories, a collection of literary essays, and a 
book of criticism. In 1986 she coedited The Oxford Book of Canadian 
Short Stories, published American editions of books in three 
genres — Bluebeard's Egg (short stories), The Handmaid's Tale 
(novel), and Interlunar (poetry^) — and appeared at writers' confer- 
ences, universities, and other cultural programs. 

Atwood's writings have elicited enthusiastic responses. The Mod- 
em Language Association has held four special sessions on her work 
(in 1977, 1984, 1985, and 1986), and she was a featured reader at the 
1975 and 1984 MLA national conventions. An International 
Margaret Atwood Society has sprung up; in Canada she is so well 
known that she has had to go in disguise. By 1982 her works had been 
translated into fourteen languages. In 1986 over 122 articles, re\iews, 
and letters about her books were published in America alone. John 
Updike (in the New Yorker)^ Paul Gray (in Time), Doris Grumbach 
(in the Chicago Tribune), Mary McCarthy (in the New York Times 
Book Review), and over sixty others who reviewed The Handmaid's 
Tale showed that writers of critical acumen and great reputation are 
taking Atwood seriously. 

Why has Atwood become so widely discussed? What are the rea- 
sons for her increasing popularity? For one thing, she transcends 
categories and polemics: She is a witty author who writes about 
serious subjects. She is a feminist who likes men and who can cre- 
ate believable men on her pages. She mines popular culture but 
parodies it, appealing to the reader who likes old-fashioned ro- 
mance while entertaining the critic who spies allusions inside 

xix 



XX Introduction 

every character and act. She attracts American readers — in part 
because she knows the United States well and takes its measure as 
only an informed outsider can — while she is not afraid to criticize 
the States for ecological carelessness, excessive materialism, and 
violence. (One senses that the mirror she holds up is meant to 
show the way to correction, not serve as an accusation.) 

Atwood is increasingly involved in national and international 
cultural issues, as a founding member of Canada's Writers' 
Union and an active member of Amnesty International and 
P.E.N. Her involvement is part of her appeal. Atwood has be- 
come that rare figure — an artist who is also a cultural diplomat, a 
woman whose energy, commitment, and vision spill over into 
public life. 

No account of Atwood's work is complete without mention of 
her striking expertise in a wide variety of genres. One is hard 
pressed to think of other writers equally gifted as novelists and 
poets (though Hardy and D. H. Lawrence come to mind). Sylvia 
Plath, Marge Piercy, Erica Jong, and Alice Walker, among con- 
temporary women, write in both forms, and it is in the company 
of such feminists, often concerned with environmental and social 
issues, that Atwood seems most at home. 

Some have said that the challenge, in writing about Atwood, is 
just to keep up with her as she continues publishing books of high 
quality with alarming rapidity. More important, though, is the 
need to understand and to respond to the issues she raises. To do 
her writing justice means going deeply into her major works while 
keeping her enormous range in mind. 

Our book was undertaken with the sense that a new, compre- 
hensive critical collection encompassing Atwood's recent work 
was needed. We thought it significant to include both U.S. and 
Canadian critics and to address enduring concerns in her work: 
among them, feminism, ecology, the Gothic novel, the theories of 
Frye and Jaynes, and politics, especially the relationship between 
Canada and the United States and between French and English 
cultures in Canada. We wanted to explore the references to Cana- 
dian authors and literary events unknown or less than familiar to 
readers in the States and to offer added attention to Atwood's po- 
etry, which is particularly valued in Canada, where poetry finds a 
broader audience than in the United States. 

We were particularly interested in Atwood's feminism. Many 



Introduction xxi 

of the following essays dwell on women's issues and employ femi- 
nist literary approaches to trace Atwood's refashioning of tradi- 
tional genres. Some essays demonstrate how, as Atwood's charac- 
ters confront gender issues with varying degrees of self-awareness 
and success, the reader is forced to become involved. 

On a related plane, another concern of Atwood's is the myth and 
realit)' of the United States, where, for Atwood, people have lost 
touch with themselves under the pressure of high technology, mass 
culture, and consumerism. Atwood's view presents an important 
challenge for American critics; our collection begins and ends with 
Atwood's views of the United States. 

Another special interest that inspired this collection was 
Atwood's pervasive awareness of nature. Two essays — one on 
Atwood's animals, another on shamanism in her work — 
investigate Atwood's ecological and spiritual orientation to na- 
ture. Her use of myth and folklore, as an oral expression of a 
pretechnological and communal life rooted in nature, is the focus 
of two more of our essays. 

As a prolific and versatile writer — she has authored two chil- 
dren's books {Up in the Tree and Anna's Pet) and works for 
radio — Atwood also provides source materials that offer insights 
into creativity and the development of the creative process. 
Atwood has donated some of her early unpublished work to the 
University of Toronto archives. Two of our essays use archival 
materials and Atwood's own commentaries to explore the au- 
thor's creative development; one traces her changing literary 
treatment of American and Canada, and one explores her haunt- 
ing watercolors, reproduced in book form for the first time. 

Like current literary scholarship in general, the critical ap- 
proaches in our collection are eclectic. While most of our writers 
use fairly traditional critical methods involving textual analysis, 
studies of influence, genre analysis, and literary history, we also 
include two semiotic interpretations and two original pieces by 
Atwood — an interview and a conversation. These mingled view- 
points offer readers a range of insightful approaches to Atwood's 
complex art. 

Survival, the first widely read expression of a distinctively Cana- 
dian literary identity, catapulted Atwood to fame and controversy 
as a critic, and the publication oi Second Words in 1982 confirmed 



xxii Introduction 

her position as one of Canada's leading literary' spokespersons. 
Feminists in particular — both in and out of Canada — have wel- 
comed Atwood's Survival because it clearly identifies the victim 
role and outlines concretely how female and Canadian cultural 
identities have been repressed over the years. June Schlueter's 
essay "Canlit/Victimlit: Survival and Second Words'"'' analyzes the 
treatment of Canada (equated with the female, the exploited vic- 
tim, and nature) and the United States (equated with the male, 
the exploiter, and the victimizer) in Atwood's criticism, noting 
that these are not only actual countries but also states of mind, 
ways of being and seeing. Sexual and regional contradistinctions 
also, according to Atwood, have global repercussions. Since 
Tocqueville, Freneau, and Martineau, Americans have gained in 
self-awareness from informed foreign responses to the United 
States. Through Schlueter's thought-provoking essay we see 
Atwood continuing this tradition. 

Following Schlueter's examination of Atwood as critic, our 
book turns to the novels, each of which is covered individually 
and in detail. "The Two Faces of the Mirror in The Edible Woman 
and Lady Oracle,'''' by Pamela S. Bromberg, explores how the fe- 
male protagonists of each of the two novels under discussion be- 
come trapped in relationships that mirror nineteenth-century 
romance plots. Marian MacAlpin's anorexia nervosa, and her fear 
of impending marriage suggest a linkage between consumerism 
and gender politics in The Edible Woman. Bromberg analyzes 
Atwood's distortions of nineteenth-century perceptions and of 
narrative methods in Milton's Paradise Lost and Eliot's Adam 
Bede. In Lady Oracle, Joan doubles and redoubles her inner and 
outer selves as Atwood's plots and narratives examine otherness 
and separateness in many forms. 

The third essay, "Pilgrimage Inward: Quest and Fairy Tale Mo- 
tifs in Surfacin£i,'''' by Elizabeth R. Baer, continues the discussion 
of issues Bromberg raises by showing Surfacing as a feminist and 
nature-based search for self. Baer convincingly presents Surfacing 
as the loup-garou folk story the unnamed protagonist wants to in- 
clude in the collection of Quebec folk tales she is illustrating. 
Based on a transformation of the Grimm tale "Pitcher's Feathered 
Bird" (further discussed by Sharon Wilson in a later essay), the 
story revolves around a werewolf who turns from male to female 
and from deadly to positive. The animal nature the werewolf rep- 



Introduction xxiii 

resents is welcomed, not exorcised; only the return to a wild ani- 
mal state allows the protagonist to meet the spirits of her dead 
parents and incorporate their power. 

Atwood's Surf(icin£i is clearly one of her finest novels; hence 
we have devoted two essays to it. Sherrill E. Grace's essay "In 
Search of Demeter: The Lost, Silent Mother in Surfacing'''' dem- 
onstrates that the novel can be read as a quest within a quest. Os- 
tensibly the novel describes the search for a father, but inscribed 
within this search is a hidden retelling of the ancient myth of 
Demeter and Persephone that was celebrated in the Eleusinian 
mystery cult of the Great Mother. To decode the novel in this 
way is, for Grace, to recover a central female discourse long sup- 
pressed by male history. 

If Surfacing can be read as a suppressed werewolf folktale or 
myth, Atwood's next novel explicitly deals with the supernatural. 
Ann McMillan's wide-ranging essay "The Transforming Eye: 
Lady Oracle and Gothic Tradition" clearly sets Atwood's "anti- 
Gothic" into the Gothic tradition crucial to Atwood's work as a 
whole. Beginning with a discussion of Horace Walpole, 
McMillan distinguishes between the Gothic fantasy of escapist 
wish fulfillment in popular novels and the darker Gothic natural- 
ism of Mary Shelley's Af«na. The essay suggests that Lady Oracle, 
like Austen's Northan^ier Abbey, falls into a third and mediating 
"mixed Gothic" tradition. In "mixed Gothic," the female 
protagonist's "transforming eye" does not convert the danger- 
ous, attractive male from threat to savior as in Gothic fantasy. In- 
stead, her eye turns inward, allowing her to see — and save — 
herself through an increase in self-awareness. McMillan's over- 
view of the central issues in major historical Gothic texts gives a 
context for understanding Atwood's brilliant reshaping of genre 
and her continuing exploration of the psychology and literature 
of women. 

Life Before Man, Atwood's most realistic novel, continues her 
concern with how humans can break through predetermined, 
negative patterns. The issue is not the Gothic quest for love so 
much as it is the search for identity as a process of healing. Many 
forms of pain — deaths, divorce, abandonment, discrimination, 
madness — threaten the novel's female characters, particularly 
Elizabeth. Posing the central question of how people can change 
for the better when they are psychologically burdened by the past. 



xxiv Introduction 

Gayle Greene, in '''Life Before Man: 'Can Anything Be Saved?'" ex- 
plores the heahng power of recognition and acceptance that can 
transcend time. Especially important, as Greene demonstrates, is 
women's recognition of the power of the mother figure, and the 
depth of her pain. 

Bodily Harm, the novel that follows, continues the psychologi- 
cal investigations of Life Before Man, yet there is a striking 
contrast — Atwood's mood, tone, and style are more dramatic 
and dynamic as the new protagonist, Rennie, faces life and death 
crises. Lorna Ir\^ine's "The Here and Now of Bodily Harm'" pur- 
sues Atwood's provocative suggestion that this novel, at first 
glance a straightforward adventure romance, actually takes place 
in a Caribbean prison, where flashback pasts and imagined future 
intersect. Within the jail of "here, now," the novel expands, as 
Irvine shows, to include the past of Rennie, of her mother and 
grandmother, of Lora, and of others. Ir\^ine elegantly reveals the 
subtext of inscription, in which the female body is a blank page 
penetrated and inscribed by the male pen. Rennie's female 
wound — her partial mastectomy — like the male intruder in her 
apartment and her incarceration, is a violation of her personal 
space akin to rape. As a writer, Rennie introjects violation by cut- 
ting herself off from writing about important issues and limiting 
herself to trendy journalism. Rennie's final achievement lies in 
the repossession of her body and her own female power to inscribe 
the truth upon the blank page of the world. 

"Nature and Nurture in Dystopia: The Handmaid's Tale," by 
Roberta Rubenstein, is the first of two essays devoted to Atwood's 
controversial vision of the fascist Republic of Gilead — the north- 
eastern United States after a nuclear war in the late twentieth cen- 
tury. Rubenstein clearly shows how in this novel "female anxieties 
associated with fertilit)^, procreation, and maternity are projected as 
cultural catastrophe." In Gilead the "natural" world — including sex 
and procreation — has become denatured, contaminated, and artifi- 
cial. Rubenstein sensitively traces the myriad ways in which the inhu- 
man politics of Gilead mirror and enforce the slavery of its women. 

Arnold E. Davidson's "Future Tense: Making Historv' in The 
Handmaid's Tale," on the other hand, inverts the novel by seeing 
it through the lens of its short final section of "Historical Notes." 
These notes consist of the proceedings from an academic meeting 
devoted to analyses of the foregoing narrative, which we learn is 



Introduction xxv 

the story of the handmaid Offred fortuitously preserved on audio- 
tape. As a pedantic academic of the future discusses Offred's tale, 
he inadvertently reveals his masculinist assumptions: Davidson 
warns that a sexist legacy is not easily overcome. 

Atwood's books of poetry are too numerous to treat in detail. 
We begin with an essay on Atwood's poetics and conclude with 
explorations of developing issues in her poems. In "Weaving 
Her Version: The Homeric Model and Gender Politics in 5^- 
lected Poems, " David Buchbinder gives a close semiotic reading 
that posits an inner integrity to the volume as a whole. Employ- 
ing polysystems theory, his interpretation o^ Selected Poems re- 
veals Atwood's subtle but pervasive use of Homeric women: 
the victimizer Siren, the victim Circe, and the victor Penelope. 
The essay includes a challenging consideration of the place- 
ment of the reader in relation to the text. Writing from Perth, 
Australia, Buchbinder offers a reading that overlooks U.S.- 
Canadian issues in order to focus on Atwood's relation to the 
greater Western tradition. 

Judith McCombs's extensively researched essay "Politics, 
Structure, and Poetic Development in Atwood's Canadian- 
American Sequences: From the Apprentice Years to 'The Circle 
Game to' 'Two-Headed Poems'" reveals the creative process at 
work as Atwood develops and matures as a poet. In Atwood's 
juvenalia, deposited in the Atwood archive at the University' of 
Toronto, we see her first using then abandoning long 
Whitmanesque lines borrowed from Ginsberg's Howl in favor of 
short, vertical poems. Examinations of English- and French- 
Canadian relations and critiques of the United States run 
throughout Atwood's works: McCombs closely follows 
Atwood's changing treatment of these themes from her earliest, 
unpublished work to the demanding volume Two-Headed Poems. 
In the process, McCombs reveals the complex meanings and ele- 
gant structures of Atwood's Canadian-American sequences. 

Readers have often remarked on Atwood's pervasive primi- 
tivism and the movement in her work from the "static, the mytho- 
logical, or the sculptural" to the "kinetic, the actual, or the 
temporal," to borrow Frank Davey's terminology from his essay 
"Atwood's Gorgon Touch." Kathleen Vogt's "Real and Imagi- 
nary Animals in the Poetr\' of Margaret Atwood" sensitively ex- 
plores the intersection between primitivism and presentation 



xxvi Introduction 

(whether "mythic" or "actual"). Establishing the dominance of 
animal imagery in Atwood's poetry, Vogt distinguishes between 
animals used as mythic counters to make statements about people 
and integral animals appearing as actual live creatures in 
Atwood's work. The "best" animal images, Vogt contends, com- 
bine the two modes and "remind us of the integrity of both ani- 
mals and humans and the necessary interconnectedness of the 
two." She concludes by suggesting that Atwood's most moving 
and fully realized animals issue from a participatory female aware- 
ness of the natural world instinct with its own freedom, whole- 
ness, and value. 

My own "Shamanism in the Works of Margaret Atwood" com- 
plements the essays by Baer and Vogt, which stress Atwood's vi- 
sion of nature. In this essay, I attempt to locate Atwood's works as 
a whole in a primal, shamanic mode that employs specific 
shamanic images, such as reflecting surfaces and skeletons, an "al- 
phabet" of natural imagery, and the theme of transformation 
through symbolic death. The essay suggests that Atwood's work 
bears close affinities with contemporary ethnopoetic writings and 
that the shamanic mode is inherently akin to a female, nature- 
oriented vision. 

A special feature of this volume is its eight-page color supple- 
ment reproducing Atwood's rich and disturbing original water- 
colors. Previously unpublished in book form, many of these 
paintings evoke themes that dominate her literary works. Sharon 
R. Wilson's stimulating essay "Sexual Politics in Margaret 
Atwood's Visual Art" carefully discusses each painting, drawing 
on conversations with Atwood to illuminate the paintings and 
their place in Atwood's poems and fictions. 

It is fitting, in a book on a contemporary, to give the author her- 
self the last word. In Jan Garden Castro's freewheeling interview, 
the conversation covers writing and feminism, ambiguous end- 
ings and the setting oi Bodily Harm, the stories behind the revolu- 
tions on Grenada and Petit Martinique, petroglyphs, and the 
aesthetics of swift denouement. Atwood's increasing engage- 
ment in feminist and political issues and organizations such as 
Amnesty International show in her habit of turning conversation 
to the political and in her witty comments on nationalism and im- 
perialism. Atwood discusses a number of specific points (such as 
her use of oppositional paradigms in Surfacing) ^ and her com- 



Introduction xxvii 

merits on her part in Canadian literary life — her work with 
Anansi Press and the Writers' Union of Canada — round out our 
picture of Atwood as a many-sided literary person. 

Atwood's recent remarks to candid questions asked by a group 
of college undergraduates from the States show her in her some- 
time role as teacher and mentor. She stresses the need for these 
students — and' for the United States as a world power — to en- 
large their acquaintance with international affairs and assume the 
responsibility that comes with power. In "A Conversation: 
Margaret Atwood and Students," Atwood clarifies her belief that 
most writers in the States today have cut themselves off from poli- 
tics, seeing the political as inherently antiliterary and limiting. 
Atwood argues that writers have a responsibility to acknowledge 
social and political issues through their writing. For her, litera- 
ture, like life, is inherently political. Atwood's recommendations 
of other Canadian authors and list of favorite authors (her favor- 
ite American is Faulkner) should interest students and teachers 
alike. It is for them, and the concerned reader, that these essays 
were collected. 

Kathryn VanSpanckeren 



A Margfaret Atwood Chronology 



Born: i8 November 1939, Ottawa, Ontario 

Places of Residence: Ottawa, Ontario, 1939- 1945 

Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, 1945 
Toronto, 1946-1961 
Boston, 1961-1963 
Toronto, 1963-1964 
Vancouver, 1964-1965 
Boston, 1965-1967 
Montreal, 1967-1968 
Edmonton, 1968-1970 
England, France, Italy, 1970-1971 
Toronto, 1971-1973 
Alliston, Ontario, 1973-1980 
Toronto, 1980-1983 
England, Germany, 1983-1984 
Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 1985 
New York, 1986 
Australia, 1987 

Education: Victoria College, University of Toronto, B.A., 1961 
Radcliffe College, A.M., 1962 
Harvard University, 1962-1963, 1965-1967 

Employment: Lecturer in English, University of British Columbia, 
Vancouver, 1964-1965 
Instructor in English, Sir George Williams 
University, Montreal, 1967-1968 



XXIX 



XXX An Atwood Chronology 

Instructor in English, University of Alberta, 

Edmonton, 1969-1970 
Assistant Professor of English, York University, 

Toronto, 1971-1972 
Writer-in-Residence, University of Toronto, 

1972-1973 
Writer-in-Residence, University of Alabama, 

Tuscaloosa, 1985 
Berg Chair, New York University, 1986 
Writer-in-Residence, Macquarie University, 

New South Wales, Australia, 1987 

In addition, Ms. Atwood has worked as a cashier, a summer 
camp tripper, a waitress, a writer for a market-research firm, and 
a film-script writer. 

Awards: E. J. Pratt Medal, 1961 

President's Medal, University of Western 

Ontario, 1965 
Governor General's Award, 1966 
Centennial Commission Poetry Competition, 

First, 1967 
Union Poetry Prize, Poetry (Chicago), 1969 
The Bess Hoskins Prize, Poetry (Chicago), 1974 
The City of Toronto Book Award, 1977 
The Canadian Bookseller's Association Award, 1977 
Periodical Distributors of Canada, Short Fiction 

Award, 1977 
St. Lawrence Award for Fiction, 1978 
Radcliffe Graduate Medal, 1980 
Molson Award, 1981 
Guggenheim Fellowship, 1981 
Companion of the Order of Canada, 1981 
Welsh Arts Council International Writer's Prize, 1982 
Periodical Distributors of Canada and the Foundation 

for the Advancement of Canadian Letters Book of 

the Year Award, 1983 
Ida Nudel Humanitarian Award 
Toronto Arts Award, 1986 



An Atwood Chronology xxxi 

Governor General's Award, 1986 

Los Angeles Times Fiction Award, 1986 

Booker Price Shortlist, 1987 

Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction, 1987 

Council for Advancement and Support of Education, 

Silver Medal, Best Articles of the Year, 1987 
Humanist of the Year Award, 1987 
Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, 1987 

Honorary Decrees: D. Litt., Trent University, Peterborough, 

Ontario, 1973 
LL.D., Queen's University, Kingston, 

Ontario, 1974 
D. Litt., Concordia College, Edmonton, 1980 
Smith College, Northampton, 

Massachusetts, 1982 
University of Toronto, 1983 
University of Waterloo, Waterloo, 

Ontario, 1985 
University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, 1985 
Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, 

Massachusetts, 1985 
Victoria College, University of Toronto, 1987 



Margaret Atwood 



I Canlit/Victimlit 

Survival and Second Words 
June Schlueter 



In Margaret Atwood's second novel, Surfacin0,^ the image of 
Canada as colony, physically exploited and psychologically op- 
pressed by the United States, is manifest. As the unnamed protag- 
onist journeys to the home of her missing father, she and her three 
companions drive past the evidence of American influence: bull- 
dozed trees, power lines running into the forest, a rocket base — 
"the disease is spreading up from the south" (p. 7). Against the 
background of Anna's mindless singing of American songs, 
David brazenly asserts, "If we could only kick out the fascist pig 
Yanks and the capitalists this would be a neat country" (p. 43). 

David's politics are blunt but ironic, coming from a citified 
man who is himself ambitious, with little interest in stopping 
progress and none in curbing aggression in either national or sex- 
ual politics. His anti-Yank comment, however, does reflect the at- 
titude of the protagonist, who measures every violation of nature 
she encounters in terms of the Americans. When she and her com- 
panions discover a dead heron, hanging upside down like an 
abandoned lynch victim, she sees the bird as a testimony to the 
Americans' wanton destruction. And when she discovers its kill- 
ers are not Americans after all, but Canadians, she concludes that 
"it doesn't matter what country they're from . . . [tjhey're still 
Americans, they're what's in store for us, what we are turning 
into" (p. 48). 

This vision of Canada's colonial mentality finds repeated ex- 
pression in the novel, as the protagonist, plagued by a suppressed 
memory of an abortion, connects the destruction of the Canadian 
wilderness with her own experience, until the Americans become 



2 June Schlueter 

objects of personal hostility and Canada a surrogate for herself. 
But even as the protagonist personalizes Canada's position, it be- 
comes clear that her view is not idiosyncratic. It is, rather, em- 
blematic of a collective national mentality that, Atwood con- 
tends, pervades and defines "Canlit." Like the protagonist of 
Surfacing — who, finally, emerges from the collapse of her civil- 
ized self and refuses to be victim — Canada is voilnerable, consum- 
able, and oppressed. 

The same year Atwood published Surfacin£i, she also published 
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Recognizing 
that the study of Canadian literature was still in its infancy, even in 
Canada, Atwood hoped to speak about Canada "as a state of mind, 
as the space you inhabit not just with your body but with your head" 
(p. i8). Her approach would be to identify a number of key patterns 
in Canadian literature, providing, in effect, a "map of the territory" 
(p. i8). But the cartographer/critic who constructs this survival 
manual proposes a map of Canada with boundaries shaped not by 
bold, dark, impenetrable lines but by tentative, pencil-drawn dotted 
lines that physically — and psychologically — admit intruders. For 
Atwood, the hypothesis that Canada is a "victim," or an "oppressed 
minority," or "exploited" — in short, a "colony" (p. 35) — needs no 
testing; it immediately becomes a model constructed from her expe- 
riences v^th Canadian literature, which have convinced her that see- 
ing itself as victim is a national habit of mind. 

In Atwood's analysis of nature, animals, native Canadians, and 
early settlers; of family and cultural symbols; and of writers frus- 
trated in their attempts to record the Canadian experience, "vic- 
tim" becomes the operative term. The kind of victim presented in 
any particular piece of Canadian poetry or prose may be under- 
stood by reference to a four-category paradigm of "Basic Victim 
Positions": 

1. To deny the fact that you are a victim. 

2. To acknowledge the fact that you are a victim, but to explain this as an 
act of Fate, the Will of God, the dictates of Biology (in the case of 
women, for instance), the necessity decreed by History, or Econom- 
ics, or the Unconscious, or any other large general powerful idea. 

3. To acknowledge the fact that you are a victim but to refuse to accept 
the assumption that the role is inevitable. 

4. To be a creative non-victim, (pp. 37-38) 



Canlit/Victimlit 3 

Though unquestionably a negative look at Canada's collective 
sense of self as reflected in its literature. Survival provided an 
interpretive lens through which Canadians might see and share 
and react. 

In the months that followed the publication of Survival, Cana- 
dians did, indeed, react: they bought the book in such quantities 
that it quickly Became the most widely read work of literary criti- 
cism in Canada. As James Steele points out in "The Literary Criti- 
cism of Margaret Atwood," Survival "introduced many Canadi- 
ans to their own literature for the first time" (p. 74). But those 
knowledgeable about Canlit responded not with applause for the 
clarity of Atwood's vision but with defenses: hers was a myopic 
view, seen through a distorted lens. Steele was himself among the 
dissenters; victim hunting, he claimed, was productive with those 
authors Atwood had chosen to feature, but it was an empty game 
with just as many others. Frank Davey, in "Atwood Walking 
Backwards," also found fault with Atwood, especially for ignor- 
ing "the very large and significant celebratory tradition in Cana- 
dian poetry," represented by such writers as W. W. E. Ross, 
Dorothy Livesay, Irving Layton, Victor Coleman, bpNichol, and 
Gwendolyn MacEwen (p. 83). And Patricia Morley, in "Survival, 
Affirmation, and Joy," noticed that though she read the same 
prose Atwood did — F. P. Grove's "Snow," Ernest Buckler's The 
Mountain and the Valley, Gabrielle Roy's Where Nests the Water 
Hen, Wallace Stegner's "Carrion Spring," Adele Wiseman's Each 
Man's Son, Margaret Laurence's The Stone Andrei, and Roch 
Carrier's Is It the Sun, Philibert? for example — she saw affirma- 
tion where Atwood saw negation (pp. 21-30). 

The historical-materialist position, expressed by Paul Cappon 
in "Towards a Sociology of English Canadian Literature," re- 
jected Atwood's approach as "liberal idealism": 

Atwood plays the common liberal trick of psycholo£[izin£[ social phenom- 
ena — in this case American imperialism. American dominance for her be- 
comes something purely cultural and abstract. For her, individuals react 
to it by being victimized, but the more enlightened ones can resist it indi- 
vidually and become "creative non-victims." . . . Atwood's solutions to 
an American dominance which is in fact material (economic), not ab- 
stract, are those of individualism and elitism, characteristics which con- 
form to the dominant ideology. {Our House, p. 50) 



4 June Schlueter 

Steele agreed that Atwood's criticism "reveals more about the 
poetic world-vision of Margaret Atwood than about the struc- 
tural principles of Canadian literature" (pp. 80-81). 

Atwood, however, insists she is describing a cultural phenome- 
non: "Canadians themselves feel threatened and nearly extinct as 
a nation, and suffer also from life-denying experience as 
individuals — the culture threatens the "animal" within them — 
and . . . their identification with animals is the expression of a 
deep-seated cultural fear {Survival, p. 79). Atwood even suggests 
in Survival that the ''''real condition" of Canadians may not be "ex- 
ploited victims" so much as it is the ^^need to be exploited victims" 
(p. 84). 

A number of Canadian writers and academics complained that 
Atwood's argument in Survival had the force of prescription, urg- 
ing Canadians into a vision of self that was neither palatable nor 
true. Chief among the dissenters was Robin Mathews, who noted 
that the pessimistic literature that Atwood describes — the litera- 
ture of a people who are "torn, caged, colonized, despairing, 
undone" (p. 115) — has a vital and substantial counterpart in Ca- 
nadian struggle literature, which is not a literature of surrender. 
Citing George Grant as representative of the kinds of authors 
Atwood chooses to include in her analysis, Mathews condemns 
Grant's presentation of "a monolithic and Establishment view of 
Canadian experience which makes us all guilty of the sins of the 
Bank of Montreal, the Family Compact, the multi-national cor- 
porations and their docile, fawning servants" (p. 113). As a conse- 
quence of this "refusal to discriminate among the forces of 
community, and exploitation, between the people and capitalism 
in Canada, George Grant rests self-condemned, guilty, an alien in 
his own land and history, unable ... to become a spiritual inhabi- 
tant of his own nation." Like many of the other writers Atwood 
selects. Grant finds "as a solution to the death of a conservative 
ideal a psychological state which can only be described as liberal 
individualist anarchism" (p. 113). 

Atwood's response, "Mathews and Misrepresentation," ob- 
jected to Mathews's assumptions about her political principles, 
implying that he himself was imposing his own (Marxist) views 
on Canadian literature. His contention concerning a significant 
strain of struggle literature she dismissed as wishful thinking. To 
his admonishment for omitting those writers "who have dealt 



Canlit/Victimlit 5 

deeply with out colonial condition, writers that are at home in the 
recognition of oppression and the struggle against it" (p. 117), 
Atwood retorted that when she made a special effort to discover 
such literature she found very little. Moreover, Atwood clearly 
does not agree with Mathews's belief that in order to effect change 
a society needs to have positive role models. Though she would 
wish for such models, she believes that, in order to effect change, 
"you need to have a fairly general consciousness of what is 
wrong. ..." In other words, society must first admit "that it 
should be changed": "to fight the Monster, you have to know that 
there is a Monster . . ." {Second Words, p. 146). Atwood repeated 
her belief that the mainstream of Canadian literature has been de- 
scribing that Monster — "in all its forms, including those in our 
heads — accurately" (p. 148) and that in doing so it has been urg- 
ing and encouraging survival. 

Atwood's refutation was reprinted in Second Words, a collec- 
tion of reviews and other critical writing which she grouped into 
three chronological segments: 1960-1971, 1972-1976, and i977- 
1982. In the introduction to the volume, Atwood explains that she 
called the book Second Words for two reasons: "The first is that I 
am not primarily a critic but a poet and novelist, and therefore my 
critical activities, such as they are, necessarily come second for 
me. . . . The other reason is based on precedence: that is, a writer 
has to write something before a critic can criticize it" (p. 11). She 
also comments on the division into three parts, noting that in the 
first part she develops "some of the ideas set forth in Survivar and 
that the second "runs from 1972 (or the publication o^ Survival) to 
1976," thus covering a period when she "was being attacked a lot," 
when much of what she wrote was "in response to some of these 
attacks." She notes as well that this second period "corresponds to 
the peak of cultural nationalism and the popularization of femi- 
nism" (p. 14). The third grouping, which has no material connec- 
tion with Survival, begins with the publication of Lady Oracle in 
1976 and runs through the appearance of Second Words in 1982. In 
that period, she remarks, her writing becomes increasingly in- 
volved with human rights and with a "larger, non-exclusive pic- 
ture" (p. 282); still, a number of essays in this third section return 
us to the thesis of Survival either in provincial or global form. 

Much of Atwood's early criticism is college writing, done for 
Acta Victoriana, the literary magazine of Victoria College, Uni- 



6 June Schlueter 

versity of Toronto. In the 1960s, Canadian literature was just be- 
ginning to burgeon, and Atwood was reviewing many of the 
writers — Margaret Avison, James Reaney, D. G. Jones, Eli 
Mandel, Al Purdy, Gwendolyn MacEwen — who would later ap- 
pear in Survival. In 1962, she published a review of J. P. 
Matthews's Tradition in Exile: A Comparative Study of Social In- 
fluences on the Development of Australian and Canadian Poetry in 
the Nineteenth Century, a critical book that evaluates Canadian 
and Australian poetry in relation to colonial attitudes. As Atwood 
describes Matthews's claim, Canadian colonialism "ignores the 
indigenous and strives to emulate the mother country"; Austra- 
lian colonialism "reacts against its parent and turns in upon it- 
self (p. 30). The corresponding forms of poetry are the academic 
and the popular, with the Canadian tradition favoring the aca- 
demic. Curiously, the woman who, ten years later, was to propose 
her paradigm of Canlit as victim literature is puzzled by 
Matthews's apparent preference for the popular as a national liter- 
ature and offended by the image of the nineteenth-century Cana- 
dian as "a nail-gnawing . . . intellectual, smothered in English- 
ness, bleating and effete," to be measured against "the Bushman, 
virile, lawless, unwashed and above all virile, composing four-line 
ballad verses with irrepressible gusto . . ." (p. 31). 

Two other essays in this early group are of special interest in 
Atwood's developing vision on Canlit: "Eleven Years of Alpha- 
bet" and "Nationalism, Limbo, and the Canadian Club," both 
from 1971. She begins the Alphabet essay, written on the occasion 
of that little magazine's last issue, with a quotation from an edito- 
rial by James Reaney, which had appeared in an earlier Alphabet: 
"Now the young intellectual living in this country, having gone 
perhaps to a Wordsworth high school and a T. S. Eliot college, 
quite often ends up thinking he lives in a waste of surplus USA 
technology, a muskeg of indifference spotted with colonies of in- 
herited, somehow stale, tradition. What our poets should be 
doing is to show us how to identify our society out of this depress- 
ing situation" (p. 90). In this essay, Atwood offers a "hypothetical 
generalization" about the Canadian habit of mind. Unlike En- 
glish thinking, which is empirical, and American thinking, which 
is abstract and analytical, Canadian thinking, she suggests, is syn- 
thetic. The Canadian tendency, reflected in such critical works as 
Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism and Marshall McLuhan's 



Canlit/Victimlit 7 

The Gutenber0 Galaxy, is to propose large, accommodating sys- 
tems in order to synthesize all parts of experience. This need to 
discover the whole connects with Reaney's comment about the 
literary need "to identify our society out of this depressing situa- 
tion," with the experience of the protagonist in Surfacing, and 
with the implicit plea of Survival. It also connects with the sad 
story of cultural neglect Atwood tells in "Nationalism, Limbo, 
and the Canadian Club." 

As a child in the Canadian public-school system, Atwood sang 
"Rule Britannia," drew pictures of the Union Jack, learned the 
names of the kings of England and of that country's explorers. At 
home, she read Batman, Captain Marvel, and other comic books 
from America. In high school, she studied the world wars and as- 
sorted European and American history. The one year her teachers 
"got around to Canada," they "touched on such engrossing sub- 
jects as Wheat, The Beaver and Transportation Routes" (p. 85). At 
home, she read Life magazine, where she learned about American 
drum majorettes and spaniels and Eugene McCarthy. In college, 
there was no room in the English literature course for Canlit, but 
in college she discovered a library of Canadian little magazines. 

Elsewhere, recalling her experience as a graduate student at 
Harvard University, where she went originally so she could 
study under Jerome H. Buckley, a leading Victorian scholar 
(and a Canadian), she commented that "Americans found a rev- 
elation of one's Canadian-ness . . . about as interesting as the an- 
nouncement that one had had mashed potatoes for lunch." As 
Atwood explains to Joyce Carol Oates, "The beginning of Cana- 
dian cultural nationalism was not 'Am I really that oppressed?' 
but 'Am I really that boring?' " (p. 10) Americans "had been 
taught that they were the centre of the universe, a huge, healthy 
apple pie, with other countries and cultures sprinkled round the 
outside, like raisins." Canadians "had been taught that we were 
one of the raisins ..." {Second Words, pp. 87-88). 

Atwood concludes her essay with a story about the Canadian 
Club at the Harvard Business School. At one of its parties, which 
featured Canadian Club and Canada Dry, mixed with talk of Ca- 
nadian nationalism and American opportunity, an inebriated 
club member played a recording of "The Star Spangled Banner" 
at high volume. Others, who had all evening been talking about 
not wanting to go back to Canada but wanting to make their for- 



8 June Schlueter 

tunes in the United States, objected and removed the record, only 
to have the drunk man replace it. When, fmally, one of them 
shouted, "Cut that out, you bloody Yank," the wounded — and 
angry — man replied, "I'm not a Yank, I'm a Canadian!" then put 
the record back on again. Atwood's sober conclusion — a pro- 
legomenon to Survival — is that "it was our own choices, our own 
judgements, that were defeating us" (p. 89). 

Atwood continues to write about Canadian literature in the 
second group of essays. In "Travels Back" (1973), she speaks of her 
poetry readings in Canadian schools where kids didn't study 
Canlit and of her evangelistic refrain: "Refusing to acknowledge 
where you come from . . . is an act of amputation. . . .By discover- 
ing your place you discover yourself (p. 113). In "Canadian Mon- 
sters" (1977), she looks at the supernatural in Canadian fiction, 
suggesting that the metamorphosis of the natural monster into 
the humanmade monster reflects "the changes in Canadian soci- 
ety and outlook over the last sixty years ..." (p. 252). And in 
"What's So Funny.> Notes on Canadian Humour" (1974), she ex- 
amines examples of Canadian parody, satire, and humor, locating 
the Canadian funny bone not in the insistence that "I am a gentle- 
man" (as in England) or "I am not a dupe" (as in America) but in 
the insistence that "I am not provincial." She notes, however, "as 
provinciality is seen as something irrevocably connected with 
being Canadian, the audience can renounce its provinciality only 
by disavowing its Canadianism as well" (p. 188). Recalling the 
habit of mind in Survival, Atwood concludes: 

The concealed self-deprecation, even self-hatred, involved in such disa- 
vowal, the eagerness to embrace the values of classes and cultures held su- 
perior, the wish to conciliate the members of those other groups by 
deriding one's own — these are usually attitudes displayed by people 
from oppressed classes or ethnic groups who have managed to make their 
way out of the group, alienating themselves in the process. "Yes, they are 
awful," such jokes seem to be saying, "But look, I am laughing at them. I 
am no longer one of them." (p. 188) 

Clearly Atwood's assessment of Canlit after the publication of 
Survival did not change: Canlit does not reflect the more general 
postwar despair, nor is victimization as she describes it — the indi- 
vidual as social representative — a universal theme. Moreover, 
had she the opportunity to elaborate her thesis through a second 
edition of Survival, she would, she insists, include sections on 



Canlit/Victitnlit 9 

"Humour, War, Magic, Struggle (if [she could] find enough ma- 
terial), and something about the shapes of critical theories . . ." 
(p. 131). 

But there is another concern developing in the essays included 
in this group, readily surmised by a glance at the writers whose 
work she reviews. Essays on Adrienne Rich, Audrey Thomas, 
Erica Jong, Kat'e Millett, Marie-Claire Blais, and Marge Piercy ac- 
company "On Being a 'Woman Writer' " (1976) and "The Curse 
of Eve — Or, What I Learned in School" (1978). It is telling that 
when Atwood moves to a consideration of feminism in literature 
and to the female writer, she moves beyond Canada's boundaries, 
proposing a model of gender victimization that, while not exclu- 
sive to Canada, corresponds to the Canadian paradigm Survival 
describes. In the Mathews refutation, she offers ("just for fun") 
specific female responses for the Basic Victim Positions: 

1. Ignore her victimization, and sing songs like "I Enjoy Being a Girl." 

2. Think it's the fault of Biology, or something, or you can't do anything 
about it; write literature on How Awful It Is, which may be a very use- 
ful activity up to a point. 

3. Recognize the source of oppression; express anger; suggest ways for 
change (p. 145) 

Because a woman in Canada cannot "write as a fully liberated 
individual-as-woman-in-society" (p. 145), Atwood omits Position 

4. the creative nonvictim. 

In "The Curse of Eve," Atwood speaks of the fictional women 
she has encountered in fairy tales, novels, plays, and poems, com- 
posing a mammoth catalog of stereotypes common to the West- 
ern literary tradition, all of them acquired from "the media, 
books, films, radios, television and newspapers, from home and 
school, and from the culture at large, the body of received opin- 
ion." Cynically, she adds "personal experience" — sometimes — 
"which contradicts all of these" (p. 219). 

Atwood does not linger over the female victim in Survival, find- 
ing enough evidence of victimization in Indians, Eskimos, ani- 
mals, settlers, immigrants, futile heroes, and paralyzed artists. 
But she does devote one chapter to "Ice Women vs Earth Moth- 
ers." Using Robert Graves's model, proposed in The White God- 
dess, of woman as "maiden" (Diana), as "goddess of love, sex and 
fertility" (Venus), and as the forbidding "goddess of the under- 



lo June Schlueter 

world" (Hecate), Atwood notices that, in Canadian literature, 
Dianas die young, Venuses seldom appear, and Hecates, espe- 
cially as frozen old women, abound (p. 199). She is particularly 
struck by the absence of Venuses, noting that there is a tendency 
in Canadian literature to divide the two traditional functions of 
Venus, "sexual love and babies": "to have the sexual love depart- 
ment presided over by whores, or by easy and therefore despised 
women, and to reserve the babies for Diana figures, nonentities or 
even Hecates" (p. 206). The Nature-as- Woman metaphor, com- 
mon to the literature of other nations as well, is special in Cana- 
dian literature in that the recurring fictional character is "not just 
an Ice-Virgin-Hecate figure, but a Hecate with Venus and Diana 
trapped inside" (p. 210). 

In the final section of Second Words, Atwood's criticism ac- 
quires greater range, as she moves into regular reviewing of books 
by men and by non-Canadians: Timothy Findley, Join Thomp- 
son, W. D. Valgardson, E. L. Doctorow, Nadine Gordimer, Ann 
Beattie, and Anne Sexton, for example. But a number of essays 
suggest that her extended range both endorses and broadens her 
Survival thesis. In "Diary Down Under" (1978), she records her 
impressions of Australia, a country that seems to her to be even 
more oppressed than Canada, and she measures Australia's idea 
of Canada against her own. In particular, her account of Fay 
Zwicky's address at the writers' conference she attended reflects 
her continuing — and humorously self-effacing — preoccupation 
with the Canada of Survival: 

Fay Zwicky from Western Australia speaks last. She begins by referring to 
D. H. Lawrence's Kangaroo, in which he said that Australians had great 
dead empty hearts, like the continent, despite their outward boisterous 
amiability. She then wonders when Australia is going to 'wv'iX.cMoby Dick, 
laments its provincialism, asks when it's going to stop nosing around for 
its identity and get down to it, and affirms its potential. This is all pain- 
fully familiar. Canada is lucky D. H. Lawrence never wrote a book called 
Beaver. If he had, he'd doubtless have commented on that rodent's fabled 
habit of biting off its own testicles, thus defining us forever, (p. 304) 

Similarly, she begins her review of Midni^fht Birds: Stories of 
Contemporary [American] Black Women Writers (1981) by regis- 
tering the fact that, though she was asked to assess this collection 
of fiction, she was neither American nor black: "I am in fact Cana- 
dian, a citizen of a country which was until recently dominated by 



Canlit/Victimlit ii 

one imperial power and is now dominated by another. Could it be 
that the editors o^The Harvard Educational Review perceived that 
I have something in common with the writers in this collection?" 
(p. 358). The refrain reappears in "Canadian-American Relations: 
Surviving the Eighties" (1981), which might just as well have been 
written a decade earlier, for it reiterates the concerns o^ Survival 
and Surfacing, insisting that Canada is still the edible country. 
But Atwood concludes her essay by contending that the most im- 
portant field of study has become "the study of human aggres- 
sion." Updating "No taxation without representation," she 
proposes a contemporary equivalent: "No annihilation without 
representation" (p. 391). 

Since Atwood's "second words" speak so pointedly to her role 
as Canadian, as woman, and, most importantly, as critic and 
writer of Canlit, I shall end with them as they appear in the intro- 
duction to the third segment of that critical volume: 

I have always seen Canadian nationalism and the concern for women's 
rights as part of a larger, non-exclusive picture. We sometimes forget, in 
our obsession with colonialism and imperialism, that Canada itself has 
been guilty of these stances towards others, both inside the country and 
outside it; and our concern about sexism, men's mistreatment of women, 
can blind us to the fact that men can be just as disgusting, and statistically 
more so, towards other men, and that women as members of certain na- 
tional groups, although relatively powerless members, are not exempt 
from the temptation to profit at the expense of others. Looking back over 
this period, I see that I was writing and talking a little less about the Cana- 
dian scene and a little more about the global one. (p. 282) 

Note 

I. Page references in the text are to the following editions: Surfacing 
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972); Survival: A Thematic Guide to Ca- 
nadian Literature (Toronto: Anansi, 1972). 



2 The Two Faces of the Mirror in 
The Edible Woman and 
Lady Oracle 

Pamela S. Bromberg 



In her poetry and novels^ Margaret Atwood exposes c ne of many 
contradictions in the Western cultural construct of femininity. In 
the English literary tradition, women are often criticized and pun- 
ished for the sin of narcissism, for loving their own images and selves 
above all (especially masculine) others. Yet it is precisely women's 
images, that is, their beauty, that society most prizes and rewards in 
the marriage market. Few, if any, successful — courted and 
married — eighteenth- and nineteenth-century heroines lack beauty. 
But that beauty must be validated in the eyes of the masculine be- 
holder. The power of beauty is then necessarily derivative and secon- 
dary. The woman who looks in the mirror and finds herself beautifiil 
(without merely seconding or mimicking the specular judgment of 
patriarchal society) is dangerous, because she has appropriated the 
masculine scopic power of approval. She must then be corrected or 
punished. 

Milton's portrayal of the narcissistic Eve in Paradise Lost fiirnishes 
a paradigm of this process and its contradictions. A representative 
nineteenth-century English novel, George Eliot's Adam Bede also 
uses the test of the mirror to define its two diametrically opposed fe- 
male protagonists. The beautiful Hetty Sorrel enjoys the admiring 
gazes of the local men and looks approvingly in the mirror; she plans 
to make her fortune with her face. Dinah Morris, the methodist 
preacher, gazes not in the mirror of narrow egoism, but looks out 
the window of her own soul toward compassionate understanding 
of others. And yet, in addition to rewarding Dinah's selflessness with 



12 



The Two Faces of the Mirror 13 

her (relatively) happy ending, Eliot cannot resist making her beauti- 
ful too, albeit in a quieter, less obvious, and more spiritually accepta- 
ble way. George Eliot's two women in Adam Bede are as imprisoned 
by specularity and the dominant patriarchal culture (both in their 
plots and in her judgments of their desire) as Milton's Eve. 

In Margaret Atwood's two early novels The Edible Woman 
(1969) and Lady Oracle (1976), mirrors symbolize not the moral 
and psychological limitations of their female protagonists, but 
rather the crippling emphasis that society places on the female 
image as a consumer item. Atwood shows that the mirror, long a 
literary symbol of female narcissism and childish self-absorption, 
more truly reflects a culture where women are objectified and 
packaged for the marriage market. Literature itself, especially the 
popular romance (originating in the nineteenth-century novel), 
is one of society's primary tools for indoctrinating women into 
the religion of beauty and promising them the happy ending of 
marriage if only they learn to market themselves properly. 

Or, to use a different terminology, let me cite a recent essay by 
Margaret Romans that explores "The Rhetorics of Sexuality" in 
lyric poetry by women. Romans connects the rhetoric of the 
nineteenth-century "lyric of romantic desire" with the sexual poli- 
tics of the culture it reflects, arguing that "the cultural construc- 
tion of gender" shapes both the forms and rhetoric of all literature 
(p. 569). Working from Luce Irigaray's analysis of "the interde- 
pendence of language and sexuality," Romans explains that 
"specular metaphors" are "the expression of conventions of male 
sexuality that operate continuously in our culture. . . . Like the 
quest plot they replicate, specular metaphors speak for that sexu- 
ality whose story is constructed as a story of looking. A culture 
that privileges the phallus . . . also privileges sight . . ." (p. 572). 
Female sexuality, on the other hand, privileges touch. In a passage 
cited by Romans, Irigaray writes that "the predominance of the 
visual ... is particularly foreign to female eroticism. Woman 
takes pleasure more from touching than from looking, and her 
entry into a dominant scopic economy signifies, again, her con- 
signment to passivity: she is to be the beautiful object of contem- 
plation" (This Sex, pp. 25-26). Romans applies Irigaray's theory 
to Roman Jacobson's linguistic distinctions between metaphor 
and metonymy, arguing that female textuality privileges the lat- 
ter, a verbal equivalent to touching rather than looking (p. 580). 



14 Pamela S. Bromberg 

Both The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle exemplify Irigaray's 
ideas; their plots subvert patriarchal literary conventions and 
their language deconstructs traditional specular metaphors. Each 
novel, furthermore, identifies touch with the female pro- 
tagonist's potential for wholeness and escape from the "domi- 
nant scopic economy." Atwood also recognizes the dominance of 
the male gaze over the female appearance (image) in the romantic 
quest plot. She suggests that female narcissism proceeds from the 
internalization of the male gaze and imprisonment of the self in 
objectifying roles dictated by the dominant, patriarchal culture. 
Women look so often in the mirror because their primary market 
value in the marriage exchange depends upon the allure of their 
images. Women, in this culture, are their images. 

The Edible Woman reverses the marriage plot of nineteenth- 
century fiction. Marian MacAlpin, the protagonist, begins as a con- 
ventional heroine. She is young, unmarried, working for a market- 
ing company called Seymour Surveys. This is a job, not a career; 
signing up for the company pension plan produces a mild panic in 
her as she imagines a future spinster self defined by a lifetime's serv- 
ice to the company. Marian is saved from that unwelcome destiny 
when her boyfriend, Peter WoUander, proposes at the end of the 
novel's first section. 

Peter, a young lawyer, is prosperous, well-dressed, "good- 
looking." His distinction is his normalcy. Peter is not a monster of 
male-chauvinism; he is, in Marian's words, "ordinariness raised to 
perfection, like the youngish well-groomed faces of cigarette ads" 
(p. 62). Peter and Marian date casually, "taking each other at [their] 
face values" (p. 62). In a wonderfully comic sequence, Marian be- 
comes panicked, then angry, as she realizes he is depending on her 
as an accessory to his corporate image, "a stage-prop ... a two- 
dimensional outline" (p. 72), instead of a person in her own right. 
When she tries to escape from his subordination of her to his own 
needs, first by running away and then by hiding under a bed, Peter, 
predictably stimulated by the chase and capture, proposes. What 
for a nineteenth-century heroine would be triumph is the begin- 
ning of Marian's entrapment in the mirror of masculine approval 
and marriage: "As we stared at each other in that brief light I could 
see myself, small and oval, mirrored in his eyes" (p. 84). As the rests 
of the novel reveals, to be mirrored in Peter's eyes is to become 
Peter's image of her and society's image of a wife. 



The Two Faces of the Mirror 15 

By taking her at "face value" Peter uses her as a mirror. In her 
poem "Tricks with Mirrors," Atwood writes, "Mirrors arc the per- 
fect lover," perfect because they give back the self rather than the 
challenges and reality of the other. But to become a mirror for the 
other requires the subjugation, or "restraint," of ego: "breath 
withheld, no anger / or joy disturbing the surface / of the ice" 
{Selected Poems', p. 183). Marian willingly engages in that self- 
suppression. The morning after Peter's proposal she hears a new 
voice in herself, "soft flannelly" (p. 92), hardly recognizable, that 
cedes all power of choice and desire to her new fiance. 

Atwood's parodic subversion of the marriage plot becomes ob- 
vious in the novel's long second section, as Marian step by step 
loses her identity as an independent, active self and drifts passively 
toward her fatal metamorphosis into Peter's wife. The first sec- 
tion is narrated in the first person — Marian begins the novel as a 
subject self — but in the second section her story is told in the 
third person. Marian is now defined as other and object. Ex- 
II pressed by her loss of narrative authority, Marian's escalating loss 

of self is accompanied by an increasing loss of appetite. Through- 
out part I she is hungry and eating. But in part 2 she begins to 
identify herself with the objects she has previously ingested and 
consumed. As she turns from subject to object, consumer to con- 
sumed, she loses her capacity' to eat, to take the world into her self. 
This anorexia also reflects the division of her body (the primary 
subject self) from her image (the self as seen). 

This is the division effected by mirrors. The novel's counterplot 
is told through specular metaphors. The language of vision — 
mirrors, reflection, surfaces, outsides, and images — permeates 
the text. Throughout the first section of the novel, Atwood intro- 
duces mirrors as realistic details, establishing the vocabulary of 
image and self-image. In the second section, as Marian becomes 
progressively divided and objectified, she views progressively 
more distorted, alienated images of herself in a series of reflecting 
surfaces. In one scene she and Peter are having dinner in an expen- 
sive restaurant. The chapter opens: "Marian gazed down at the 
small silvery image reflected in the bowl of the spoon: herself up- 
side down, with a huge torso narrowing to a pinhead at the handle 
end. She tilted the spoon and her forehead swelled, then receded. 
She felt serene" (p. 150). The image of a pinhead expresses 
Marian's altering sense of self Since her engagement Marian has 



i6 Pamela S. Bromber0 

fallen into the habit of letting Peter choose her food for her: 
"Peter could make up their minds right away." Her lack of desire 
and inability to choose are symptomatic of her dwindling subjec- 
tivity. When she looks at Peter in the restaurant she sees him 
through the eyes of the world, not her own, thinking with pleas- 
ure that "anyone seeing him would fmd him exceptionally 
handsome" (p. 150). He, meanwhile, is watching her (p. 153), as he 
has ever since the engagement, in repeated acts of scopic 
possession. 

The distorted image Marian sees in the spoon echoes her earlier 
perception of her pregnant friend Clara, whom she perceives as "a 
swollen mass of flesh with a tiny pinhead, ... a queen-ant, ... a 
semi-person — or sometimes, she thought, several people, a clus- 
ter of hidden personalities that she didn't know at all" (pp. 117- 
18). Clara, who in high school "was everyone's ideal of translucent 
perfume-advertisement femininity" (p. 35), represents Marian's 
fate as a married woman. The spoon-mirror of marriage to Peter 
will turn her also into a pinhead with a huge torso, will objectify 
her soon-to-be-swollen body into the same terrifying nonhuman 
forms that Clara's has assumed. 

The transformation of self to other and accompanying division 
of body from mind do not require pregnancy's actual invasion of 
self by other. Marian has been just as effectively split by the male 
gaze and her new definition as wife-to-be. As the marriage date 
draws near, Marian's image takes on increasing power and her 
subjective self nearly disappears. The plot reaches its crisis when 
Peter gives a final party to introduce Marian to his friends. In 
preparation for the party, Marian has her hair done and buys a new 
red dress at Peter's urging. She is totally objectified at the hair- 
dresser's. Her head is "like a cake: something to be carefully iced 
and ornamented" (p. 214). She observes the "operation," "fasci- 
nated by the draped figure imprisoned in the filigreed, gold oval 
of the mirror. . . ." Her body feels "curiously paralysed" (p. 215). 

Later, as she bathes, she sees her naked body reflected back in 
the globes at the base of the faucets and spout on the bathtub: 
"She moved, and all three of the images moved also. They were 
not quite identical." Her self has fragmented and divided away 
from her. She looks at the water and at "the body that was sitting 
in it, somehow no longer quite her own. All at once she was afraid 
that she was dissolving, coming apart layer by layer like a piece of 



The Two Faces of the Mirror 17 

cardboard in a gutter puddle" (p. 224). This specular dissolution 
parallels Marian's panic over becoming her image under the "un- 
comprehending eyes" of Peter's friends: "she was afraid of losing 
her shape, spreading out, not being able to contain herself any 
longer, beginning (that would be worst of all) to talk a lot, to tell 
everybody, to cry" (p. 225). In the third-person narrative of the 
second section Marian has lost her voice. Now she fears simulta- 
neously the total loss of her shape (her subject identity) and the 
opposing assertion of subject (real) self that would take place if 
she began to talk, to tell, to cry, to abandon the "restraint it / 
takes" to be a mirror. Faced with these paradoxically contrary 
fears, Marian finally recognizes that she is unhappy. Her self- 
division is imaged in two old dolls "sitting there inertly on either 
side of the mirror, just watching her" (p. 225). The dolls represent 
her dawning awareness that she has become divided into two 
selves, the image seen by others and the other deeper self that feels 
and sees inside. But even this knowledge is objectified, transferred 
from her self to the two dolls: "By the strength of their separate vi- 
sions they were trying to pull her apart" (p. 226). 

This is a decisive moment, for by acknowledging her feelings 
Marian is struggling against the division between self as subject 
and object. She asserts herself, takes action and invites her friends 
to the party. She arrives sporting all the accoutrements her im- 
pending role requires: regulation hairdo, sexy red dress and girdle 
underneath, a total makeup job courtesy of her roommate, 
Ainsley. Peter approves: " 'Darling, you look absolutely marvel- 
lous' " (p. 235), implying that she should look like that all the 
time. When Marian looks at herself in Peter's mirror she feels frac- 
tured and alienated: "What was it that lay beneath the surface 
these pieces were floating on, holding them all together?" (p. 235). 
Marian's insistence on inviting her friends, her first willed asser- 
tion of self in relation to Peter since the engagement, saves her. 
When her mysterious acquaintance Duncan arrives he refuses to 
join the party, pulls her out the door, examines her and finally 
says, "You didn't tell me it was a masquerade" (p. 245). Marian es- 
capes before Peter can take her picture. The photographic image 
would forever capture the alien image of this masquerade as real- 
ity, trapping her in the nineteenth-century marriage plot with its 
"happy" ending. The camera is a specular gun: "Once he pulled 



i8 Pamela S. Bromberg 

the trigger she would be stopped, fixed indissolubly in that ges- 
ture, that single stance, unable to move or change" (p. 252). 

The Edible Woman ends comically though, when Marian does 
not get married, does not happily find her identity in Peter's mir- 
ror. She recognizes that marrying Peter would destroy her by as- 
similating her; knowledge that her body or subconscious has 
registered all along by reftising to eat. Marian breaks the spell by 
creating a doll-like cake, the edible woman of the novel's title. She 
is aft"aid to conft-ont Peter with language; she wants to avoid 
words (p. 274). The edible woman caricatures Marian's increas- 
ingly objectified identity as a "living doll." In constructing the 
sugary idol Marian careftiUy chooses sponge cake, an apt repre- 
sentation of her former pliancy. Atwood again uses the language 
of ornamentation and operation employed earlier in the hair- 
dresser's passage to describe Marian's culinary creation. Here, 
however, Marian has become the sculptor rather than the lifeless 
statue erected in the name of beauty. 

When Peter arrives, angry at her disappearance from the party, 
Marian makes no rhetorical statement in her defense. Instead she 
offers him the sugary image as her substitute, suggesting, "This is 
what you really wanted all along, isn't it?" (p. 279). By making the 
symbolic literal she deconstructs Peter's image of her, along with 
the language of specularity. As soon as Peter refuses the subver- 
sive discourse of the cake, Marian (magically) regains her lost 
appetite — that is, her lost self; she feels "extremely hungry" and 
eats the cake (p. 279). Marian destroys her identity as image and 
other by incorporating it; Ainsley's shocked comment, "Marian! 
. . . You're rejecting your femininity!" accurately defines the poli- 
tics of Marian's act. By consuming the woman/cake, the mirror 
image of herself (the image desired by Peter, hired by Seymour 
Surveys, manipulated by Ainsley), she is quite literally joining her 
subject and object selves, healing the mirror's split. Metaphor be- 
comes metonymy. She has become active again, an agent, a sub- 
ject, a consumer, rather than a consumable object of exchange 
traded on the marriage market. 

Atwood counterpoints the aborted marriage plot with the nar- 
rative of Marian's relationship with Duncan. This cadaverous 
graduate student of English functions as Peter's contrary and 
plays an increasingly important role in Marian's story as she 
moves toward marriage. Atwood also uses Duncan and his two 



The Two Faces of the Mirror 19 

roommates to satirize literary discourse and thus reinforce the 
novel's more subtle intertextual debate with literary conventions 
of form and rhetoric. After leaving Peter's party to find Duncan, 
Marian finally has sex with him, an act which helps to release her 
from impending captivitv as Peter's wife. Her behavior liberates 
her from the nineteenth-century heroine's plot by inverting it. 
But even befoi-e this ultimate transgression, for Marian to see 
Duncan without Peter's knowledge is an act of self-assertion and 
betrayal of him and of her financee role. Keeping a part of herself 
private and secret from Peter, she remains partially unseen and 
uncontrolled. 

Who Duncan is — a matter for critical speculation^ — matters 
less than the fact that he exists at all as rival, alternate, opposition 
to Peter. He enables Marian to be a self in relation to Peter. She 
has no image to maintain for Duncan and therefore tells him the 
truth about her increasing inability to eat. Unlike Peter, Duncan 
does not need Marian for a self-image. He is far too narcissistic, 
too ravenously hungry and absorbed in his own self, to care what 
anyone thinks of him, or to care much about her. 

Significantly, Marian responds to and is aware of Duncan in 
primarily tactile ways, as opposed to the visual perception that 
governs her relationship with Peter. According to Irigaray's ar- 
gument, Marian experiences her own sexuality with Duncan, 
rather than becoming the passive object of Peter's gaze. Marian 
generally wants to touch Duncan, and Atwood repeatedly de- 
scribes in detail how he feels to her when she embraces him. This 
instance from chapter 19 is representative: "He was wearing a 
shaggy sweater. She stroked it with one of her hands as though it 
was a furry skin. Beneath it she could feel his spare body, the 
gaunt slope of a starved animal in time of famine. He nuzzled his 
wet face under her scarf and hair and coat collar, against her 
neck" (p. 176). Although her relationship with Peter is sexual, 
she perceives him in the purely visual, even abstract, terms with 
which he defines her. 

Duncan, on the other hand, has broken the mirror in his own 
apartment (p. 142). He doesn't reflect back to Marian the socially 
successful, "normal" image of herself that Peter does. Peter, a 
"good catch," confers upon her the identity of a worthy, desir- 
able, normal woman. When she looks in Duncan's mirror, how- 
ever, she cannot see herself, only the wooden frame and a few 



20 Pamela S. Bromberg 

jagged pieces of glass. Atwood writes in the poem "Tricks with 
Mirrors": "Think about the frame . . . / it exists, it does not reflect 
you, / it does not recede and recede, it has limits / and reflections 
of its own" {Selected Poems, p. 183). Duncan does not view Marian 
as his reflection; he does not want her to complete or "rescue" 
him and refuses to rescue her (p. 254). He will not conform to ex- 
pectations created by the nineteenth-century plot of romantic de- 
sire. Marian's relationship with Duncan acknowledges otherness 
and separateness. He tells her she's just an escape: "You know, I 
don't even like you very much" (p. 188). Yet, paradoxically, their 
distance makes possible genuine contact. 

In part 3, Marian regains her first-person narrative voice and 
looks for another job. She is eating again, and as Duncan ob- 
serves, looking "jaunty and full of good things" (p. 286). But the 
novel's closing image is unsettling. Duncan finishes her cake, and 
since Marian has not been able to put her understanding into 
words, the reader is left to wonder whether he will then devour 
her. It is not clear that Marian has learned the secrets of Atwood's 
"Tricks with Mirrors." She is more self-assertive and healthy, but 
for how long? 

In Lady Oracle, published seven years after The Edible Woman, 
Atwood again uses mirror symbolism to explore the issues of 
image and reality, the self as seen by others and the self as known 
from within. In this, her third novel, however, Atwood extends 
the concepts of doubling, of inner and outer selves, of surfaces 
and depths, appearances and reality, with the symbolism of mir- 
rors, reflections, clothing, makeup, and photographs, and also as 
major elements in the plot and narrative structure. 

In Lady Oracle, Joan Foster shares Marian's division of self, but 
she possesses conscious knowledge of past, present, and multiple 
selves. Marian shows different sides of herself to Peter and 
Duncan, but Joan invents new identities, even new pasts, for a va- 
riety of different men. After a childhood of maternal rejection, 
she is actively in search of a self she can love. She realizes late in the 
novel that she has used men as her mother had tried to use her, as 
Peter had unknowingly used Marian: "I felt I'd never really loved 
anyone, not Paul, not Chuck the Royal Porcupine, not even 
Arthur. I'd polished them with my love and expected them to 
shine, brightly enough to return my own reflection, enhanced 
and sparkling" (pp. 314-15). Joan's attempt at mirror-magic fails 



The Two Faces of the Mirror 21 

because she retains the secret identities of her past as the fat Joan 
Delacourt, and of her present alter-ego, Louisa K. Delacourt, suc- 
cessful writer of Costume Gothics. She would like to believe in the 
fairy-tale marriage plot of the popular romances she writes, but 
she is prevented from taking up her happy status in the mirror of 
feminine social success by the inconsistent realities of her fat, un- 
happy childhood and her lovers and husband, none of whom is a 
prince in disguise. 

The creation of yet another identity, the wildly successful pop 
poet Lady Oracle, forces a crisis. Joan's fame dislodges the secrets 
of her past and present identities, and her multiple selves collide. 
In the novel's complex ending, she begins to integrate her selves 
through her writing, abandoning the romantic heroine and plot 
for a story much closer to her own. 

Joan is divided initially by her mother's rejection of her. A bit- 
ter, closet alcoholic trapped into marriage by an undesired preg- 
nancy, Mrs. Delacourt names the child after Joan Crawford, 
hoping that Joan will redeem her mother's failure by becoming 
beautiful. Mrs. Delacourt tries to use Joan as her life's project: 
"Our relationship was professionalized early. She was to be the 
manager, the creator, the agent; I was to be the product" (p. 70). 
But Joan turns out to be fat, the "embodiment" of her mother's 
"own failure and depression, a huge edgeless cloud of inchoate 
matter which refused to be shaped into anything for which she 
could get a prize" (p. 71). Joan's obesity is in fact a weapon; she re- 
fuses to become her mother's desired reflection, to be objectified 
by the mirror of female beauty: "I wouldn't ever let her make me 
over in her image, thin and beautiful" (p. 94). 

Joan's resistance empowers her to see beneath the surface of her 
mother's conventionality to her masked anger and unhappiness. 
In a key dream Joan watches her mother reflected in the triple mir- 
ror of her vanity table as a three-headed monster. Mrs. Delacourt 
works strenuously at keeping up appearances, succeeding with 
her house and her face, though failing with Joan. But the mother 
revealed to Joan in her dream is filled with self-loathing, and she 
hates Joan for being the uncontrollable image of her own failure. 
After her death, Joan understands that, her mother "was not what 
she seemed," that she herself "was a throwback, the walking con- 
tradiction of her [mother's] pretensions to status and elegance" 
(p. 202). The triple mirror is the altar of Mrs. Delacourt's failed 



22 Pamela S. Bromberg 

rituals of specular transformation. She sits there, sadly succeeding 
in remaking herself into society's image of feminine beauty. But 
Joan concretely manifests the inner failure of her mother's anger, 
self-hatred, and maternal rejection. 

As in The Edible Woman, Atwood balances the central plot of 
Joan's specular imprisonment with a countermovement toward 
wholeness that is mediated through touch. Like Marian's rela- 
tionship with Duncan, Joan's relationship with Aunt Lou is also 
primarily tactile: "hers was the only lap I remember sitting on" (p. 
86). Joan's mother avoids contact with Joan (except when she at- 
tacks her daughter in murderous anger at the end of part 2): "I 
could always recall what my mother looked like but not what she 
felt like." On the other hand, the "soft, billowy, woolly, befurred" 
Aunt Lou, who loves Joan rather than her potentially beautiful 
image, frees her from the prison of obesity, chosen by Joan as a re- 
bellious distortion of the prison of beauty (p. 95). 

In her adult life Joan searches for mirror images of a lovable, 
"successful" self in romantic relationships with men and in the 
marriage plots of the heroines she fantasizes for her secret career 
as a writer of Gothic romances. But the new identities she creates 
for herself are all formed out of the unfilled need for her mother's 
loving approval of her image. Thus, although she has left home 
and lost weight, Joan continues to be imprisoned by her mother's 
legacy of specular identity. She imagines herself as the woman her 
mother would have wanted her to be, until finally in the novel's 
brilliant ending, Joan recognizes that her mother had been Joan's 
"reflection" too long: "She'd never really let go of me because I 
had never let her go. It had been she standing behind me in the 
mirror . . ." (p. 363). 

Letting go of her mother may enable Joan to accept her real self, 
past, present, and future. The plot of the Gothic romance she is 
now trying to complete refuses to follow the conventions; she be- 
gins instead to find words and images that represent her own frac- 
tured self, to incorporate her past and present identities. The 
book, however, ends ambiguously. Joan gives up writing ro- 
mances and finally tells the true story of her life (with only a few 
lies) to a reporter. She is considering writing science fiction in- 
stead, though, and she looks like she may be in danger of making 
the reporter into yet another mirror for a not entirely true version 
of herself. 



The Two Faces of the Mirror 23 

Both novels end ambiguously because their female protago- 
nists have not yet become armed with conscious, rhetorical analy- 
ses of the mirror's divisive power over them. Each has resisted 
entrapment and objectification in the nineteenth-century plot of 
romantic desire. But Marian ends up feeding Duncan with the 
head of her cake, and Joan delays her return to the reality of her 
past to stay a little longer with her latest romantic hero. While the 
protagonists, however, remain only conditionally freed from the 
romantic quest plot and the "dominant scopic economy," both 
novels succeed powerfully in exposing the rhetoric and politics of 
women's entrapment in the mirror of gender. 

Notes 

1. Page references in the text are to the following editions: The Edible 
Woman (New York: Warner Books, 19S1), Lady Oracle (New York: Avon, 
1976); Selected Poems (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976). 

2. McLay argues that Duncan "symbolizes total withdrawal into the 
self (p. 131), thus serving as the antithesis to Peter, who represents soci- 
ety. Grace suggests that "Duncan is most successful as a symbol of 
Marian's inner life or subconscious" (Violent Duality, p. 93). The novel 
supports both views, though neither fially explains Duncan's role or be- 
havior. Lecker emphasizes Duncan's duplicity. 



3 Fil0rima£ie Inward 

Quest and Fairy Tale Motifs 
in Surfacing 
Elizabeth R. Baer 



Margaret Atwood's fascination with folk and fairy tales is by 
now well-established, although not widely recognized by critics. 
"I would say that Grimm's Fairy Tales was the most influential 
book I ever read," Atwood has told one interviewer (Sandler, p. 
14).^ Atwood herself explains this attraction in terms of two as- 
pects of fairy tales: the motif of transformation and positive im- 
ages of women. "You could . . .link it with my childhood reading; 
most fairy tales and religious stories involve miraculous change of 
shape. Grimm's tales, Greek and Celtic legends have them. North 
American Indian legends have people who are animals in one in- 
carnation, or who can take the shape of a bird at will" (Sandler, p. 
14). In an interview with Joyce Carol Oates, furthermore, Atwood 
mentions two Grimm's tales, both about transformation, as her 
favorites: "The Juniper Tree" and "Pitcher's Feathered Bird." In 
addition, Atwood admires the image of women in many fairy 
tales: "The unexpurgated Grimm's Fairy Tales contain a number 
of fairy tales in which women are not only the central characters, 
but win by using their intelligence. Some people feel fairy tales are 
bad for women. This is true if the only ones they are referring to 
are those tarted-up French versions of 'Cinderella' and 
'Bluebeard,' in which the female protagonist gets rescued by her 
brother. But in many of them, women rather than men have the 
magic powers" (Hammond, p. 28). ^ Both metamorphosis and 
this second source of fascination to Atwood — female protago- 

24 



Pil£irima£ie Inward 25 

nists with intelligence and magic powers — are at the core of 
Atwood's novel Surfacing. 

The narrator of Surfacingi is working on a series of illustrations 
for an edition of Quebec Folk Tales while on her pilgrimage. She 
feels a certain frustration at the limits placed upon her by her boss, 
a man with the suggestive name of Mr. Percival.^ For financial 
and aesthetic reasons, Mr. Percival will not allow the heroine to 
use red or frightening images in her illustrations: "We had an ar- 
gument about that: he said one of my drawings was too frighten- 
ing and I said children like being frightened. 'It isn't the children 
who buy the book,' he said, 'it's their parents' " (p. 39). 

In addition to these dissatisfactions, the narrator feels that the 
anthology is incomplete: "There should be a 'loup-garou' story in 
Quebec Folk Tales, perhaps there was and Mr. Percival took it out; 
it was too rough for him. But in some of the stories, they do it the 
other way around: the animals are human inside and they take 
their fur skins off as easily as getting undressed" (p. 63). Accord- 
ing to the Standard Dictionary of Folklore, loup-£iarou is: 

The French word for werewolf; one who transforms himself into a wolf at 
night and runs the countryside devouring animals and people. In French 
Canada, a man (always a man) becomes a loup-garou because of some 
curse or a punishment from heaven. One man, for instance, found that he 
was a loup-garou because he had not been to mass (or confession) for ten 
years. The loup-garou is not always a wolf; he may be almost any other an- 
imal: a white horse, a dog, pig, even a tree, or an inanimate object. The 
loup-garou de cimitiere digs up and eats dead bodies. Those who take the 
shapes of other animals devour both animals and people; some, however, 
do little damage except to frighten passers-by and await their deliverance. 
Deliverance from the state of loup-garou comes by religious exorcism, by 
a blow on the head, or by the shedding of his blood while in the metamor- 
phosed state. (Leach, p. 647) 

What I would like to suggest is that Surfacing is the loup-garou 
story the narrator feels is missing from her anthology. 

A close comparison of the elements of the Dictionary of Folk- 
lore''^ definition with Surfacing is provocative. The loup-garou 
story chronicles a transformation (one of the sources of Atwood's 
fascination with fairy tales), and transformation is the object of 
the narrator's quest in Surfacing!. The loup-garou story is also in- 
digenous to French Canada, where Atwood spent some of her 
childhood.^ The traditional loup-garou story, however, features a 
male protagonist. Here "Margaret the Magician" (as she has been 



26 Elizabeth R. Baer 

termed by one critic) performs a metamorphosis of her own by 
grafting the strong female character from the Grimm tradition 
onto the loup-garou story. This sex reversal, then, is the first of 
many inversions Atwood uses in adopting the loup-garou motif 
to her own purposes. 

The transformation into a werewolf occurs because of a trans- 
gression or "sin" of some kind; the narrator o^Surfacin£i recounts 
a conversation she had with her brother regarding this belief: 

[My brother] said, "They believe if you don't go to Mass you'll turn into 
a wolf." 

"Will you.>" I said. 

"We don't go," he said, "and we haven't." (p. 63) 

The narrator's "sin," of course, is her abortion, which represents 
the loss of the animal in her. Her lover rationalizes the abortion by 
telling her "it wasn't a person, only an animal" (p. 165). The abor- 
tion has thus been a sort of exorcism, and the narrator now needs 
to reclaim her animal nature. 

The loup-garou can be a wolf, or any other animal, even a tree. 
Early in the novel, the narrator speculates: "Maybe that's why 
they didn't waste any sweat searching for my father, they were 
afraid to, they thought he'd turned into a wolf; he'd be a prime 
candidate since he never went to Mass at all" (p. 63). And, in a 
metaphorical sense, she's right. Near the end of the novel, she has 
visions in which she sees her father as a wolf and her mother as a 
bird; she herself undergoes change near the end of her quest into 
several animal states. Again, Atwood has used a reversal of the tra- 
dition, suggesting that this primal state is a kind of apotheosis, 
not a badge of shame. 

Eating or devouring is part of the curse of the loup-garou; great 
attention is paid in the novel to eating, to taboos about food, and 
to devouring as a metaphor for the guilt of the Americans and the 
narrator.5 We are told in detail what the four eat at the cabin, how 
they gather food in the garden, how they fish and pick blueberries. 
At first, the narrator feels justified in killing animals for eating; 
later this sickens her. She is horrified by wanton killing of animals, 
such as the heron. As the narrator is slowly transforming into an 
animal, she increasingly senses a mysterious power, associated 
with nature, that dictates her actions, especially her eating. First 
the food in the cabin, in cans and jars, is forbidden her by the 



Pilgrimage Inward ij 

power (p. 206), then the vegetables growing in the garden are for- 
bidden, and she is allowed only food growing wild such as rasp- 
berries and roots: "Now I understand the rule. They can't be 
anywhere that's marked out, enclosed: even if I opened the doors 
and fences they could not pass in, to houses and cages, they can 
move only in the spaces between them, they are against borders. 
To talk with them I must approach the condition they themselves 
have entered; in spite of my hunger, I must resist the fence, I'm 
too close not to turn back" (p. 209). Again, Atwood uses a rever- 
sal: in the metamorphosed state, her narrator is forbidden from 
eating, rather than compelled to do so. 

Obviously, I am not claiming that the narrator o^ Surfacing is a 
werewolf. Atwood's use of the motif is more subtle than that. And 
she has made some significant shifts in her adoption of the loup- 
garou story. In essence, she sees the transformation into the ani- 
mal state as positive rather than negative, and she conveys this by 
the series of inversions that I have just described. Let us now take a 
look at the two Grimm's fairy tales mentioned above, "The Juni- 
per Tree" and "Pitcher's Feathered Bird," to determine their in- 
fluence on, and transformation within. Surfacing. 

A close reading of these two tales reveals that both are tales of 
transformation. The central character of the former is male, and 
of the latter, female. In both stories, characters are dismembered 
(beheaded in "Tree" and hacked limb from limb in "Bird"). Also 
in each story, the central character uses cunning, magic, and met- 
amorphosis into a bird in order to triumph over the evil character, 
who is consumed by flames at the conclusion of the tale. The 
dismembered characters in both stories are magically restored to 
wholeness. 

Although Atwood calls "The Juniper Tree" her favorite, it is 
"Pitcher's Feathered Bird," with its central female protagonist, 
that bears closer comparison with Surfacing. The similarities be- 
tween the two are startlingly provocative. A variant of the Blue- 
beard tale, "Pitcher's Feathered Bird" is the story of a sorcerer who 
spirits one of three sisters away to his house in the forest and gives 
her a key and an egg. Telling her she may open any chamber in the 
house but one, he leaves; she, of course, opens the forbidden 
chamber. She finds there a bloody basin, filled with the limbs and 
heads and torsoes of his former guests. In astonishment, she 
drops the egg, thereby staining it with blood; when the sorcerer 



28 Elizabeth R. Baer 

returns, he thus knows she has trespassed, and he hacks her apart 
and adds her to the basin. A similar fate awaits the second sister. 
When the third sister is left alone, however, she puts away the egg 
before unlocking the room, thereby tricking the sorcerer. She 
magically restores the dismembered sisters, sends them home, 
dons the disguise of a bird, traps the sorcerer in his house, and 
burns him to death. 

Like Surfacing, this is the story of a quest, of a journey into the 
woods, of a young woman who is split apart and then made 
whole, of transformation into an animal state (here the loup- 
garou motif) in order to achieve vision and triumph. If, as is com- 
mon practice in reading fairy taies,^ we see the various men in the 
narrator's life as aspects of the sorcerer, the similarities come 
clear. At the beginning of the Grimm story, the sorcerer comes to 
the door, looking like a beggar, and asks for food. When the eldest 
girl gives him a piece of bread, he touches her and she is unable to 
keep herself from jumping into his basket (Grimm, p. 216). So, 
too, the narrator of Surfacing has gone twice into the woods at the 
behest of her father, first as a child, when "he picked the most re- 
mote lake he could find" (p. 66), and second as an adult, to find 
her father when he disappears. 

If the sorcerer as kidnapper is represented in Surfacirig as the 
narrator's father, then the sorcerer as murderer is both her father 
and her "lover." Her father's rationalism is one of the forces most 
powerful in splitting the narrator, dismembering her; likewise, 
the lover's insistence that she have an abortion has also divided 
her. The very language she uses to describe the event reveals this: 
"A section of my own life, sliced off from me like a Siamese twin, 
my own flesh cancelled" (p. 54). 

Similarly, if we look at Surfaci'n0\ narrator as a version of the 
three sisters in the original tale, we can more clearly see her at vari- 
ous stages. Initially, her relationships with men have disastrous ef- 
fects, and she is left emotionally paralyzed. But she is not destined 
to remain so. Ultimately, her intelligence, her ability to learn by 
experience and survive, which surfaces in the wilderness, will save 
her. Just so in "Pitcher's Feathered Bird": "Now the sorcerer went 
and fetched the third girl, but she was clever and cunning" 
(Grimm, p. 218). This third sister reveals her cunning by safely 
putting the egg away before entering the forbidden chamber. 
Then, "Ah, what did she see! There in the basin lay her dear sister, 



Pilgrimage Inward 29 

miserably murdered and hacked to pieces. But she set to work and 
gathered all the parts and laid them in the right order, head, body, 
arms, and legs. And when there was nothing missing, the limbs 
began to stir and joined together and the two girls opened their 
eyes and were alive again" (Grimm, p. 218). So, too, does At- 
wood's heroine put the missing pieces of herself back together 
and effect a trarrsformation. When she and Joe make love, she 
conceives a child to replace the one "sliced off." She describes it: 
"I can feel my lost child surfacing within me, forgiving me, rising 
from the lake where it has been prisoned for so long, its eyes and 
teeth phosphorescent; the two halves clasp, interlocking like fin- 
gers, it buds, it sends out fronds" (p. 187). 

Attention to the role of the fetus/abortion in Surfacing brings 
us, of course, to the significance of the egg and the key in 
"Pitcher's Feathered Bird." It is fairly obvious that the key is a 
masculine symbol and the egg a feminine one. Beyond that, Jung 
tells us that the egg is frequently a symbol of the self in dreams 
(Fordham, p. 65). The egg in "Fitcher's Feathered Bird" certainly 
can be identified with both the naimtor of Surfacing and the fetus. 
The bloodstains on the first two eggs, which give away the secret 
of entry to the forbidden chamber, can represent complicity, the 
death of the abortion. The third sister wisely puts the egg away; 
the narrator of Surfacin£f resolves to protect her second fetus. 

So, dismemberment and subsequent reunification is one trans- 
formation motif Atwood appropriated from fairy tales; let us now 
look at the second set of transformations in "Fitcher's Feathered 
Bird" and Surfacin£[. Critics must not stop at the narrator's preg- 
nancy and cluck about how difficult her life will be when she has 
that child back in the city, but must examine the even more signif- 
icant transformation, unification, that occurs when the narrator 
is alone on the island. In "Fitcher's Feathered Bird," the third sis- 
ter uses two disguises to trick the sorcerer into his own death. 
Once the sister produces the spotless egg, the sorcerer says, " 'You 
have stood the test and shall be my bride.' " (Grimm, p. 218). First, 
she bedecks a skull with jewels and flowers and puts it in the attic 
window to represent herself as a bride. Then she crawls into a bar- 
rel of honey, rolls herself in feathers, and goes out to greet the ar- 
riving wedding guests. The clever sister divides herself in half, one 
half an image of convention, of acceptability in society, which is 
also an image of death (like mad women in much literature, as 



30 Elizabeth R. Baer 

Gilbert and Gubar have shown, in the attic), the other half an ani- 
mal, a loup-garou, a bird, a disguise that gives her the freedom to 
confront her demon and destroy it. 

Atwood has divided her novel into three sections, roughly 
equivalent to the three parts of any journey/quest: separation, 
descent/initiation, return. Section 2 of the novel ends appropri- 
ately with the narrator's descent into water and the discovery of 
her father's body. Having dived below the surface of her image, 
back into — as one critic has put it — "the undifferentiated whole- 
ness of archaic consciousness" (Piercy, p. 41), the narrator be- 
comes whole again. She vows to bear a child, who will represent 
the released guilt of the past and the potentiality of the future. 
Having made that vow, she proceeds to the next steps in liberating 
and naming herself, in finding her identity. She makes love with 
Joe, replacing in herself the life which the abortion had destroyed. 
She dumps "Random Samples" into the lake, freeing "the invisi- 
ble captured images to swim away like tadpoles" (p. 195). She stays 
behind when Anna, Joe, and David leave the island, gradually at- 
tuning herself to "the power" of irrational, instinctual animal life. 

In chapters 22 to 25, the novel reaches a stunningly poetic cli- 
max. The narrator divorces herself step by step from the trappings 
of civilization: "I know I must stop being in the mirror. I look for 
the last time at my distorted glass face: eyes light blue in dark-red 
skin, hair standing tangled out from my head, reflection intrud- 
ing between my eyes and vision. Not to see myself, but to see. I re- 
verse the mirror so it's toward the wall, it no longer traps me. 
Anna's soul closed in the gold compact, that and not the camera is 
what I should have broken" (p. 203) . Without the mirror, her split 
self cannot exist. The heroine continues with her destruction: the 
canned food, her clothing, all enclosures are rejected. She burns 
her artwork (symbol of a falsely docile self) and her wedding ring 
(symbol of her fake wifehood). She thus divests herself of other 
doubles. She tears apart the cabin: "Everything from history must 
be eliminated" (p. 207). She must pierce the layers of artificiality 
to get back to the source, the source of her feelings, her instincts, 
her humanity. To get in touch with her body again, she becomes 
virtually an animal. 

Here, the influence of "Pitcher's Feathered Bird" and the loup- 
garou motif upon Surfacing is strongest. The narrator leaves the 
cabin, taking a blanket with her, saying, "I will need it until the fur 



Pilgrimage Inward 31 

grows" (p. 206). She submerges herself in the lake, a ritual of puri- 
fication: "When I am clean, I come up out of the lake, leaving my 
false body floated on the surface, a cloth decoy" (p. 206). She is re- 
enacting and reversing the folk tales where an animal unzips its 
skin and becomes human; she instead takes off her human skin 
(clothing) to become animal, a werewolf transformation. She 
continues to think of herself as an animal: 

I leave my dung, droppings, on the ground and kick earth over. All ani- 
mals with dens do that. 

I hollow a lair near the woodpile. ... I sleep in relays like a cat. (p. 207) 

The fetus, too, she imagines as an animal, but this time it is a posi- 
tive conceptualization: "I put it there, I invoked it, the fur god 
with tail and horns, already forming" (p. 210) and not the nega- 
tive one that allowed her to abort her first pregnancy. 

In her final apotheosis, the narrator merges completely with na- 
ture, the irrational, the instinctive: 

I lean against a tree, I am a tree leaning 

I am not an animal or a tree, I am the thing in which the trees and ani- 
mals move and grow, I am a place, (p. 210) 

As a result of this apotheosis, she sees visions of her dead parents. 
Indeed, these visions are the apex of her quest. These epiphanies 
allow her to acknowledge the duality of her existence and to move 
from before to after, to accept her parents' deaths, to put away her 
image of herself as a child, and to reenter the world as an adult. 

Her vision of her mother comes first: "Then I see her. She is 
standing in front of the cabin, her hand stretched out. . . . She 
doesn't move, she is feeding the jays: one perches on her wrist, an- 
other on her shoulder" (p. 211). The narrator has always con- 
nected her mother with this pose and with calmly shooing a bear 
away; in other words, she has seen her in communion with nature. 
Earlier in the novel, she had tried to evoke an image of her mother: 
"I tried to think about my mother, but she was blanked out; the 
only thing that remained was a story she once told about how, 
when she was little, she and her sister had made wings for them- 
selves out of an old umbrella; they'd jumped off the barn roof, at- 
tempting to fly, and she broke both her ankles. She would laugh 
about it, but the story seemed to me then chilly and sad, the failure 
unbearable" (p. 142). Now her mother will succeed in making the 



32 Elizabeth R. Baer 

transformation: "The jays cry again, they fly up from her, the 
shadows of their wings ripple over the ground and she's gone. I go 
up to where she was. ... I squint up at them, trying to see her, try- 
ing to see which one she is" (p. 211), 

Ellen Moers, who has written extensive commentary on the fre- 
quency and function of bird imagery in women's literature, be- 
lieves that the "central sense" of such imagery in women's 
literature "is not flying as a way for a woman to become a man, 
but as a way for the imprisoned girl-child to become a free adult" 
(p. 382). And in the fairy tale "Pitcher's Feathered Bird," it is the 
bird disguise that allows the third sister to become a free adult. 
Thus, in Surfacing the narrator's mother is a kind of phoenix. The 
narrator had tried to paint an illustration for Quebec Folk Tales of a 
princess "gazing up at a bird rising from a nest of flames, wings 
outspread like a heraldic emblem" (p. 60), but she couldn't get 
the image of the princess right, just as she couldn't get her own 
image right. During her vision of her dead mother, it's as if she 
had just stepped into that picture and, looking up at the jays, ac- 
knowledges her mother's and her own transformation. 

If the narrator has suffered as a result of embracing her father's 
rationalism, she has also suffered as a result of rejecting her moth- 
er's "irrationalism." So her quest is for her father, but even more it 
is for a reconciliation with her mother. The search for the mother 
looms largely in many of the paradigms of the female quest that I 
have examined, including those of Margaret Scarborough and 
Rachel Blau DuPlessis. The reunion of mother and child, immor- 
talized in the Demeter and Persephone myth, is the ultimate goal. 
Only by integrating the gifts of both parents can the heroine bal- 
ance her life. 

As Surfacin0''s narrator sees her mother, so must she see her 
father. Her vision of him comes next: 

From the lake a fish jumps 

An idea of a fish jumps 

A fish jumps, carved wooden fish with dots painted on the sides, no, 
antlered fish thing drawn in red on ciiffstone, protecting spirit. It hangs 
in the air, suspended, flesh turned to icon, he has changed again, returned 
to the water. How many shapes can he take. (pp. 216-17) 

As he changes shape, her father becomes the very drawing he was re- 
searching as he died. He will represent a "protecting spirit" to his 



Pil0rima0e Inward 33 

daughter, not the terrifying figure of the usual loup-garou. Thus, 
Atwood again inverts the Quebec werewolf motif, stressing the 
positive rather than the negative in the animal metamorphosis. 

Finally, the narrator dreams about her parents, "the way they 
were when they were alive and becoming older," and when she 
wakes in the morning, she knows "they have gone finally, back to 
the earth, the air, the water, wherever they were when [she] sum- 
moned them." (p. 219). She reaffirms life: her life, the life inside 
her. She sur\'ives. She has seen the ghosts of her parents and has ac- 
cepted a gift, a heritage from each of them. From her father, she 
gets a map, a map to a genuine sacred place where each person 
confronts her/his personal truth. This is the gift of knowledge, 
from the head, how to see. From her mother, she receives knowl- 
edge from the heart, how to feel: a picture she has drawn herself of 
a pregnant woman, a sun, and a moon. Accepting these gifts al- 
lows her to join her masculine and feminine halves and become 
whole. 

The integration, the "centering," that the heroine of Surfacing 
experiences comes as a result of the realizations she makes while in 
the animal state. Her growing awareness, in fact, of the connec- 
tion between herself and animals (the fish, the heron) throughout 
the novel signals her ability to get in touch with that side of herself 
and become whole again. The most radical change Atwood makes 
in the loup-garou motif, then, from the patriarchal version, is to 
emphasize how absolutely essential it is for human beings to stay 
in contact with the animal side of their nature. That is what the 
narrator had lost; the split between nature and culture, the irra- 
tional and rational, intuition and logic, women and men, emo- 
tion and intellect, has crippled her. The feminist inversion, then, 
of the loup-garou stor\' is to have a ritual, not to "exorcise" the 
werewolf, but to "inorcise" it, to claim the value of what has previ- 
ously been seen as the negative side of all those dichotomies just 
listed and, further, to assert that full humanity^ must be both. 



Notes 

I. More recently, Atwood reconfirmed the influence of the Brothers 
Grimm on her work in a lecture entitled "One Writer's Use of Grimm," 
delivered on 20 November 1985 under the sponsorship of the Delaware 
Humanities Forum. Citing magic, metamorphosis, and active heroines as 
the appeals of the tales, she went on to draw parallels between specific 



34 Elizabeth R. Baer 

tales and "The Animals in That Country," Surfacin£i, "A Red Shirt," 
"Variation on the Word 'Sleep,'" "Bread," "The Robber Bridegroom," 
and Bluebeard's Egg. 

2. I assume that Atwood is here referring to the fairy tale collections of 
Charles Perrault. 

3. Percival, it will be remembered, was the ignorant, bumbling new- 
comer to King Arthur's court, whose quest for the grail is eventually re- 
warded with a glimpse of it. Atwood suggests that Mr. Percival, like the 
narrator, is a neophyte on the quest. Page references in the text are to 
Margaret Atwood, Surfacing (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973)- 

4. "I was born in the Ottawa General Hospital ... in 1939. Six months 
later I was backpacked into the Quebec bush," Atwood told Joyce Carol 
Oates in a New York Times interview. 

5. Eating plays an even more central role in Atwood's other novels, in- 
cluding The Edible Woman, Lady Oracle, and The Handmaid's Tale. 

6. See especially Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment; 
Gilbert and Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic; and Roger Sale, Fairy 
Tales and Afterward. 



4 In Search ofDemeter 

The Lost, Silent Mother 
in Surfacing 
Sherrill E. Grace 



Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a 
woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over man, but to be in silence. 

St. Paul. 

I Timothy 4:11-12 

A voice is a gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human 
speech if possible. Powerlessness and silence go together. 

Atwood 

"A Disneyland of the Soul" 

Recently feminists have claimed that feminist criticism represents, 
on the one hand, the "discovery/recovery of a voice" and that, on the 
other, women's writing is a "double-voiced discourse" because it in- 
corporates both the cultural heritage of the "dominant," male group 
and the "muted," female group (Fetterley, xxxiii; Showalter, p. 31). 
While these two \iews differ insofar as the first posits the existence of a 
distinctive, because exclusively, female voice and the second locates the 
distinctively female in a characteristic merging of two voices or cul- 
tural experiences, they agree on this important point: the task of the 
feminist writer and critic is to find and release something lost, ig- 
nored, denied, devalued, and repressed, not only to women them- 
selves, of course, but to the whole of patriarchal society. Freud was 
right, it seems, though not in the way he thought; women suffer from 
an acute sense of loss of that fiill, acknowledged humanity identified 
by the dominant group with maleness, male speech, male history. In 
addition to being lost, this thing, object, source of female identity and 



35 



36 Sherrill E. Grace 

power is silent and silenced; therefore, the problem of discovery, re- 
covery, and articulation is indeed difficult. 

In Surfacin0, however, the problem has been faced and, to a de- 
gree, solved. Lx)ss and silence could fairly be said to be the keynotes 
of Atwood's novel — indeed, Atwood has probed and anatomized 
both conditions from a female speaker's or character's point of view 
throughout her work. She is a poet haunted by loss and silence and 
by the urgent need to speak. In fact, it is possible to read Sur- 
facing as a retelling, hence a revoicing, of the ancient Greek myth 
that many claim to be the quintessential female story — the story of 
Demeter and Persephone, which inscribes the cult of the Great 
Mother and the sacred rites at Eleusis.^ Briefly, what I want to sug- 
gest is that Surfacing is a "double-voiced discourse" incorporating a 
"muted" story of Persephone's successful search for Demeter within 
a "dominant" story of an equally successful wilderness quest for a 
father. 

In so doing, I am applying Elaine Showalter's dominant/ 
muted model for feminist criticism (from "Feminist Criticism in 
the Wilderness") to Surfacing because I prefer its broader cultural 
perspective to exclusively linguistic, psychological, or biological 
models and because it enables me to isolate what Showalter her- 
self calls "double-voiced discourse" — a quality of language and 
narrative closely related to Bakhtin's notion of "dialogism" and, 
as such, a central concern and characteristic, I believe, of Cana- 
dian writing. Although I cannot entirely agree with Rachel Blau 
DuPlessis (in Writing Beyond the Ending) that Surfacing is a 
Kiinstlerroman, her general concept that to be female is to negoti- 
ate "difference and sameness, marginality and inclusion in a con- 
stant dialogue" (p. 43) applies very well to this novel. Not only 
does Atwood negotiate "sameness and difference" in a 
"revisionary mythopoesis" (as DuPlessis would put it), she also al- 
lows the "muted story of Demeter and Persephone to speak to- 
gether with the "dominant" voice of the father; she illustrates how 
the wilderness — that preserve of the the male imagination — and 
the "wild space" of female invisibility and silence can be made to 
overlap when that "space" is articulated, given form.^ 

The story of Demeter was silenced for centuries and all but extin- 
guished from human memory by successive waves of masculine re- 
pression and gynophobia (see Friedrich; Rich; and Stiller). Such 
treatment attests to the power felt to be vested in Demeter and 



In Search ofDemeter 37 

voiced in her rage at the rape of Persephone. Silence, silencing, and 
loss are intimately associated with the myth, both in its fundamental 
meaning and as it has been received by modern women: either the 
myth is not known at all, or if it is, it has not been given much impor- 
tance in Western culture because, as one male interpreter suggests, 
Persephone wanted to be raped and carried away from her mother 
and there is nothing, therefore, to fuss about (cited by Friedrich, p. 
178). In any case, mothers and daughters have come to be seen as sus- 
pect, either because they are depicted as extensions of one another in 
their desire to prey upon men (in Joyce's "The Boarding House" and 
"A Mother," for example), or because they are cast as "natural" ene- 
mies in the eternal battle for the male (Fetteriey, p. 10). What has 
been lost in these distortions or dismissals of the myth are the inter- 
related aspects of Demeter's power, the extent of her love, and the 
necessity of her existence, not only for Persephone's well-being, but 
for the survival of all life: "As the myth of the Kore tells us, upon the 
mother-daughter cathexis depends the renewal of the world" 
(Stiller, p. 31). 

According to the second Homeric Hymn (c. 650 b.c), as trans- 
lated by Paul Friedrich in The Meaning of Aphrodite^ Persephone, 
the daughter by Zeus of Demeter, awesome goddess of vegeta- 
tion, was "gathering flowers" in a meadow with some female 
friends one day. When she picked a beautiful narcissus, which had 
been planted there on purpose by Zeus and Hades, her "husband" 
to be, the god of the underworld appeared and carried her, loudly 
protesting, off to the underworld in his chariot. Demeter heard 
Persephone's cries and went in search of her only to find that no 
god or goddess would explain what had happened. Finally, 
Hecate took pity on Demeter and told her the truth, but Demeter 
would not be comforted and vowed to stop all growth and to de- 
stroy humankind unless her daughter were returned to her. Zeus 
finally relented and ordered his brother Hades to return 
Persephone to her mother. Because Hades wanted to keep his new 
wife, he put some pomegranate seeds in her mouth, thereby en- 
suring that she would return to him for one third of the year. 
Driven by Hermes in his chariot, Persephone was then returned to 
Demeter, and their reunion is described in ecstatic terms: "Seeing 
them, [Demeter] darted forward like a maenad down a mountain 
shadowy with forest. [ . . ] Persephone, on her part, when she saw 
the beautiful eyes of her mother, left the chariot and lept down to 



38 Sherrill E. Grace 

run forward. She fell on [Demeter's] neck, embracing her" 
(quoted in Friedrich, p. 177-78). The two women exchange their 
stories at considerable length, and Demeter learns of the fatal 
pomegranate, but the story ends on a positive note: 

Thus the whole day, in harmony of feeling, they greatly cheered each oth- 
er's hearts and breasts, embracing each other. The spirit stopped its griev- 
ing. They gave and received joy from each other. And bright coifed 
Hecate came near them. And many times she embraced the daughter of 
holy Demeter. And from that time Hecate was minister and comrade to 
Persephone, (quoted in Friedrich, p. 178) 

Many points could be made about the m\T:h of Demeter and 
Persephone, but I would like to review a few that seem of particular 
relevance to Surfacing. Demeter has "awesome" power, the power 
over life and death in fact. But although she is active, angr\% and 
revengeful, she must act indirectly to regain her child. 
Persephone's rebirth, and the renewal of life, depend upon her re- 
turn to her mother: only Demeter can bestow this gift because, 
from Persephone's point of view, she has been violently separated 
from the source of her life and identit^^ Central to their reunion is 
the restoration o^ xht\r speech and their joy and mutual comfort in 
open communication. In addition, the m\T:h explores not onlv the 
struggle between the forces of life and death, but also the bitter hos- 
tility' and power politics of males and females — Demeter, Per- 
sephone, and Hecate are allied against Zeus, Hades, and, by 
association, Helios (Poseidon also attacks Demeter while she is 
looking for Persephone). The battle between the sexes ends in a 
compromise of sorts with the women winning back two-thirds of 
their precious time together — and Demeter and Persephone have a 
helper and friend in Hecate — while males are seen as enemies or, at 
best, peripheral beings (as are, for example, Helios and Hermes). 

As we turn from the myth to the novel, several questions arise: 
For example, why does the daughter search for the mother in Sur- 
facirig} What or who is to blame for their separation? To what de- 
gree and purpose are they united? And why, although loss is cen- 
tral to the m\T:h, does silence become so im.portant in this 
reworking of the mythic material (as it does in others — see, for ex- 
ample, Joy Kogawa's 1981 novel Obasan)} Although silence was 
required of all initiates into the Eleusian mysteries, in the Ho- 
meric Hymn Demeter herself is not silenced and Persephone 
speaks at length after their reunion. Finally, why stress this aspect 



In Search ofDemeter 39 

of Surfacing above many other possibilities? I do so because I see it 
as important to the voice and structure of the narrative, as crucial 
to our understanding of the nature and outcome of the quest un- 
dertaken, and as absolutely central to our appreciation of the fem- 
inist issues raised by Atwood. By joining in this search for 
Demeter, it is possible to gain further insight into an extremely 
fine novel and then to speculate about the wider issues it raises. 
Certainly, the search allows us to recognize the power of the 
"muted" story, hence the "double-voicing" strategy, of the text. 

Surfacimjf has been widely discussed and sometimes criticized 
as a "stagy" adaptation of the male quest into the wilderness, as 
too negative in its treatment of men and Americans, and as a femi- 
nist "sell-out" affirming a dangerous, patriarchal conflation of 
woman with nature and implying that a baby is the answer to a 
woman's problems. As a rule, however, Canadian feminists (un- 
like many of their American and French counterparts) have fewer 
misgivings about either woman's role as child bearer or the sym- 
bolic parallels between nature and female identity. (See Grace, 
"Quest for the Peaceable Kingdom"; Showalter; and Ortner.) 
Furthermore, it should be noted that Persephone's appearance 
with a son — the reborn Dionysus — is often seen as essential to 
the Eleusian mysteries, and the ancients celebrated the power lo- 
cated in childbirth. In the last analysis, demurrals about nature 
and babies miss the point because the source of the novel's power 
begins to appear when, approximately halfway through, the 
narrator's ostensible search for the father, the search that has 
brought her to this wilderness to begin with, gives way to an 
equally important search for the "wild space" of the mother and, 
through her, for her own rebirth. 

From the beginning of her journey, and her story, the narrator's 
thoughts turn to her mother and the woman's mysterious power. 
On her death bed (pp. 23-24), the mother is associated with un- 
planted bulbs, snow, flowers, and some token or message for her 
daughter that the younger woman cannot find (p. 39). When the 
narrator and her friends arrive at the island cabin, one of the first 
things she sees is the dirty and cracked grey leather jacket that had 
belonged to her mother (p. 47), the jacket in which the mother fed 
the jays. This image cluster (woman/jacket/seeds/birds) will 
recur with increasing importance. Shortly after this, the narrator 
catches herself casting each of her companions as members of her 



40 Sherrill E. Grace 

own family — David and Joe as her father and brother, Anna (in- 
terestingly) as her younger self, she as her mother. She, however, 
does not know how to be this mother who, in the afternoons, 
would "simply vanish" into the forest: 

The only place left for me is that of my mother; a problem, what she did in 
the afternoons between the routines of lunch and supper. Sometimes she 
would take breadcrumbs or seeds out to the bird feeder tray and wait for 
the jays, standing quiet as a tree, or she would pull weeds in the garden; 
but on some days she would simply vanish, walk off by herself into the 
forest. Impossible to be like my mother, it would need a time warp; she 
was either ten thousand years behind the rest or fifty years ahead of them. 
(P- 56) 

Slowly, image by image, without naming or locating, Atwood 
builds up, or better still reveals, the mother's power, which is so 
great that it enables her to fend off marauding bears (pp. 84-85) 
and to raise the narrator's brother from the dead (p. 79), and so 
great it lingers in her place after her death. 

Even after she discovers her father's corpse, weighed down to 
the lake bottom by his camera (p. 152), the narrator's search has 
only begun. By the last quarter of the novel, she acknowledges 
that her quest is for herself, that she is on what Annis Pratt has 
called (in "^^Surfacin^ and the Rebirth Journey") a rebirth journey 
with life and sanity at stake. In order to free herself from her 
learned victimhood, from the silence, exile, and cunning that, un- 
like Stephen Dedalus's, serve only to cripple her, she must relo- 
cate "the power" — it is never more precisely named. This positive 
power can only be released through the mother whom she knows 
must have left "a legacy . . . simple as a hand . . . final" (p. 159). As 
she intensifies her search, feeling "the power" flood through her, 
she avoids the Death Angel mushroom, sprung up "from the 
earth, pure joy, pure death, burning white like snow" (p. 160) and 
confronts David, who seems to invade her space, "drawing away 
some of the power" (p. 161), as he tries to seduce her. She resists 
this obstacle to her rediscovery of power in the full knowledge 
that she must now find the mother's hidden gift because the fa- 
ther's cerebral knowledge is insufficient protection (p. 163). 

What she seeks is in the scrapbooks, one of which radiates 
power (p. 167): 

I went into the other room and took the scrapbooks out from under the 
mattress. There was still enough light to see by but I closed my eyes, 



In Search ofDemeter 41 

touching the covers with my hand, fingertips. One of them was heavier 
and firmer; I lifted it, let it fall open. My mother's gift was there for me, I 
could look. [ . . . T]he gift itself was a loose page, the edge torn, the figures 
drawn in crayon. On the left was a woman with a round stomach: the baby 
was sitting up inside her gazing out. Opposite her was a man with horns 
on his head like cow horns and a barbed tail. 

The picture was mine, I had made it. The baby was myself before I was 
born, the man was-God. (p. 169) 

The last seven chapters bring the novel to its swift and spectacu- 
lar conclusion: a creative act of ritual mating, a symbolic (and lit- 
eral) act of destruction, and a deeper dive into hallucination and 
visionary ecstasy (all recognized stages in the Eleusian rites) that 
carry the narrator past language, past boundaries and fences of all 
kinds, until she and the god/baby (a type of Dionysus with shin- 
ing fur?) she hopes she has conceived are one with everything: "I 
am not an animal or a tree, I am the thing in which the trees and 
animals move and grow, I am a place" (p. 195). 

It is important, too, to note that in the closing moments of her 
ordeal — that is, after the narrator has surfaced (p. 195) but before 
she accepts the inevitability of return to society — she has two final 
visions: one of her mother feeding the jays the sunflower seeds 
from her leather jacket (p. 196) and one of another figure who ap- 
pears to be her father but is "what my father saw, the thing you 
meet when you've stayed here too long alone" (p. 201). The 
mother-vision is positive, unthreatening, sustaining, simple, and 
human, though fully at one with the natural world; the father- 
vision is a warning, a danger, and an acknowledgment that "he 
was an intruder" an excluder ("as logic excludes love"), an image 
of penance and reparation with "wolfs eyes" but "crippled mo- 
tion" (p. 201). In as much as the narrator is, mysteriously, this 
wild thing trapped in a human shape, as the footprints show, she 
too must make reparation for her past fear, failure to love, cold- 
ness, and lies, in short, for her logical misunderstanding of herself 
and the world. Her father shows her what she must not do; her 
mother shows her what she must be, and how. 

Annis Pratt has claimed that in women's rebirth fiction the 
question of the heroine's reentry into society is much more prob- 
lematic than it is in male rebirth quests because a woman's "as- 
sumed role in society is by necessity secondary or auxiliary and 
thus her elixir is not only devalued but a threat to civilization." Al- 
though there are as many ways around the problem as there are 



42 Sherrill E. Grace 

women's fictions, Pratt finds that Surfacing provides one of the 
most positive conclusions to the quest in that it affirms a feminine 
personahty that is aware of its power and turns "patriarchal space 
inside out so that it can no longer limit her being" ('"'' Surfacin0 
and the Rebirth Journey," pp. 145, 156). Pratt goes on to acknowl- 
edge that the novel stops short of depicting the first steps of reen- 
try, but perhaps, as Marie-Francoise Guedon explains in ^''Surfac- 
ing: Amerindian Themes and Shamanism," the novel is not 
primarily concerned with such a reentry. If we restrain our de- 
mand for this type of result (after all, we do not legitimately de- 
mand such answers of male artists) and hold our suspicions about 
nature and biology in abeyance, then we will see the real, positive 
force running through the narrative in the shape of a mother- 
daughter relationship and a mother-father polarity. 

Paralleling the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the male in 
Surfacin£i (be he husband, father or would-be seducer) embodies a 
death principle; he is lord of the underworld. In "dying" or "going 
down" Persephone is impregnated, and yet, like our narrator, she 
can only be reborn through the intercession and life-giving power 
of the mother. Although they are opposite in their powers — the fa- 
ther bringing death, the mother life — in Atwood's system, both 
principles are essential to rebirth and integral to a fuller existence. 
Thus, the most unalloyed positive result of Surfacing is Atwood's 
unearthing of "double-voiced discourse," her use of both paternal 
and maternal codes, and her release of the initially "muted" search 
for the mother/self from within the familiar "dominant" search 
for the father. (She is still doing this, by the way, in "Unearthing 
Suite" from Bluebeard's E^, which is dedicated to her parents.) 
Moreov^er, she weighs their relative merits and privileges the 
mother, without denying the father. What Atwood establishes 
here, she develops even more pointedly in later poems and stories. 
This is the knowledge that "sons branch out, but / one woman 
leads to another" (Two-Headed Poems, p. 37).^ And it is the recogni- 
tion that female power is expressed through life forces, continuity, 
and special rites, though the overcoming of rigid boundaries be- 
tween things, people, nature, and culture, and through the condi- 
tion of liminality.^ 

The controversial baby is a symbol of that knowledge and of the 
narrator's reconception of a powerful female self. This Perse- 
phone has been summoned from the depths of a sterile, living hell 



In Search ofDemeter 43 

by an erring father to receive the mother's gift of renewed Hfe, of 
"restored wholeness," and "a place and a meaning in the Hfe of the 
generations" (Pratt, ^''Surfacing and the Rebirth Journey," p. 155). 
Here she passes her ehxir on to us: if we can see how to find it, if we 
can recognize a "muted" within a "dominant" discourse, a 
daughter's search for a mother/self within the wilderness quest 
for a father. 

In conclusion, let me return to the questions with which I 
began. Some of these have been answered simply by reading Sur- 
facin0 as "double-voiced discourse" that recovers the "muted" 
story ofDemeter and Persephone embedded in the more obvious 
"dominant" narrative. But one important question remains: to 
what extent can this text (and others like it, from Joy Kogawa's 
Obasan to Angelica Garnett's autobiography, Deceived with Kind- 
ness) be identified as feminist.'' To explore this question fully re- 
quires another essay, one in which I would look at some rebirth 
journeys by men where the Demeter-Persephone cathexis seems 
central — in Henry James's The Bostonians, say, or Robert 
Kroetsch's Badlands. 

Although this is not the occasion to embark on such an ex- 
tended analysis, I would like to hazard a few suggestions. It seems 
to me that Surfacing does not rely upon the primarily spatial and 
linear narrative "thrust" of the typical male quest, as we find it in 
The Odyssey, The Studhorse Man, Don Quixote, or Deliverance. It 
seems closer in form and structure to what Todorov equates with 
Grail literature and identifies as vertical and embedded narratives. 
Its purpose is not to march "onward" (as Atwood's Circe com- 
plains of Odysseus, Selected Poems, p. 206), but to "unhide the 
hidden" (Kroetsch, "Unhiding the Hidden"), to unveil, reveal, 
unearth. While drawing on the conventional formula of the male 
quest through external space (as Kroetsch portrays it in Bad- 
lands)., Surfacing more importantly sifts through layers of time, 
peeling off deceptions, obfuscations, and camouflage, and open- 
ing hitherto closed documents. In short, it creates a "double- 
voiced discourse" that uses both male and female heritage, 
models, codes, and narrative strategies: one is the dominant, fa- 
miliar trek through space — here a conventional North American 
wilderness — to overcome certain obstacles and conclude some 
business; the other is a muted story, a journey into time and "wild 
space," into the self in order to reveal and name something hid- 



44 Sherrill E. Grace 

den there. And while dominant and muted stories are maintained 
throughout, the muted story gains impetus and power until it car- 
ries the speaker into the very center of illumination from which 
she is reborn. It might also be possible to argue that Surfacing, un- 
like the texts by men mentioned above, displays a "poetics of si- 
lence" (Freeman), leaving what is unsayable unsaid, while at the 
same time revealing through often-surreal image, gradual accre- 
tion of symbolic material, and indirect action, an immanence, 
plenitude, and female power. 

Finally, I would like to consider why Persephone is searching 
for Demeter and why Demeter should be the one who is lost. In 
answer, one could refer to the myth where Demeter does wander, 
as if lost, in search of Persephone, or the daughter's search could 
be explained by conflating her with an Eleusian worshipper in 
search of the Great Mother. It is also true that in life the older 
woman usually dies first, and it could be further argued that, in ac- 
cord with patriarchal conventions, we all lose our mothers when 
we are "given" by one man to another in marriage. But then Sur- 
facing is not a simple realist text, and in any case to speak of 
Demeter as lost may be overstating and distorting the situation. 

Although Surfacing depicts a young woman who has lost her 
mother through separation and death and is shown setting forth 
on a physical and psychological journey to rediscover her, it could 
also be argued that the mother has called to her daughter, awaken- 
ing in her a desire to know, to be reborn-through dreams, natural 
cycles, signs, and pain. The jacket, seeds, and scrapbook are left by 
the mother in Surfacing just where the daughter will find them. 

If this is the case, then Rachel Blau DuPlessis may be right in 
thinking of the mother figure as a necessary muse to whom the 
narrator owes her rebirth and her narrative.^ Or, to go back to my 
initial hypothesis, Demeter may be lost because from the onset of 
patriarchy women have lived primarily in terms of their fathers 
and Father. The fact that the reunion seems so painful and ardu- 
ous testifies to the force of patriarchal prohibition (in, for exam- 
ple, St. Paul), and points to the reasons for Atwood's choice of 
Persephone's point of view. 

For centuries in Western culture, women have experienced 
themselves as "other," as powerless, or if powerful, as evil. Access 
to Demetrian power is denied them; therefore, today it may be 
more consistent with the "authority of experience" to begin with 



In Search ofDemeter 45 

the daughter, the passive, powerless one, and only gradually, ten- 
tatively approach the more awesome force of the repressed, pro- 
hibited and scarcely imaginable Mother (sec Landy). Moreover, 
to the degree that our literary and popular cultures encourage 
women to "identify against themselves as women," it has not 
been easy to welcome a powerful Mother figure. The many novels 
by women with.daughters fleeing detestable mothers — rather like 
the hapless heroines of many fairy tales — testify to this syndrome; 
Doris Lessing's Martha Quest is a prime example, but even 
Atwood has been described (mistakenly, I think) by Lorna Irvine 
as depicting monster mothers in Lady Oracle (see "A Psychologi- 
cal Journey"). Interestingly, Atwood has acknowledged and ac- 
cepted the terrible Mother as part of the Mother Goddess figure, 
implicitly in Surfacing but explicitly in poems like "Red Shirt" 
from Two-Headed Poems or, more recently, in "Letter from Perse- 
phone" from Interlunar, where Persephone resents those mothers 
who want only sons. 

Indeed, it seems to me that Atwood has overcome the evil influ- 
ence of the medusa (another aspect ofDemeter) by transforming 
her power to turn a person into stone into a source of comfort. 
For Atwood, the black stone is an avatar of the goddess. And in- 
stead of allowing it to remain silent, Atwood privileges the moth- 
er's story, voices her speech, and reverences her power. In "The 
Stone," the once-muted is dominant: 

Have you had enough happiness? she says. 

Have you seen 

enough pain? enough 

cruelty? Have you had enough 

of what there is? This 

is as far as it goes. 

Now are you ready for me? 

And the daughter answers: 

Dark mother, whom I have carried with me 
for years, a stone in my pocket, 

[•• ] 

I will never deny you 

or believe in you 

only. Go back into your stone 

for now. Wait for me. {Interlunar, p. 25) 



46 Sherrill E. Grace 



Notes 



1. The figure of Persephone has been of interest to Atwood from her 
early chapbook Double Persephone (1961), which I examine in Violent Du- 
ality (1980), to Interlunar. I have found Paul Friedrich's discussion of 
Demeter in chapter 7 oi The Meaning of Aphrodite most helpful. In addi- 
tion to stressing the misogynistic Christian attack on the rites of Demeter 
at Eleusis, Friedrich notes many interesting features of the myth such as 
its Orphic significance, the relationship between Demeter and Medusa, 
and the separation between Demeter and Aphrodite. Also of interest, of 
course, are studies by Erich Neumann, Carl Kerenyi, C. G. Jung, R. G. 
Wasson et al., and Mircea Eliade. 

2. The notion of a feminine "wild zone" as the opposite of the mascu- 
line wilderness is discussed by Showalter in "Feminist Criticism in the 
Wilderness" and is central to my understanding of Surfacing. Although 
I cannot stop to explore it in this paper, I would note that "wild" in this 
context signifies imaginary or unreal from the masculine point of view 
as well. As Showalter explains, women know the male "wilderness" 
through legend and myth, whereas men "do not know what is in the 
wild," because it is excluded from culture and consciousness, rendered 
invisible and silenced. The task for women and women writers, then, is 
to recognize and articulate the "wild zone," and this acknowledgment 
is often inscribed in "quest fictions" where the heroine "travels to the 
'mother country' of liberated desire and female authenticity" (see 
Showalter, pp. 29-31). 

3. In "A Psychological Journey: Mothers and Daughters in English- 
Canadian Fiction," Lxjrna Irvine slips into a number of distorting genera- 
lizations regarding the literature. For example, she appears to confuse the 
mother-daughter issue in Surfacin£i when she claims that the leather 
jacket represents the stultifying past (p. 250). But it is not the past or the 
mother that damage the narrator; it is the narrator's attitudes (predomi- 
nantly rationalist, like her father's) that stand in her way. What the narra- 
tor says is, "Leather smell, the smell of loss; irrecoverable" (p. 186), thus 
signifying the devastating nature of her motherless condition. Although 
Irvine chooses novels that appear to illustrate a daughter's struggle to be 
free of the mother (novels like Lady Oracle, A Jest of God, and Lives of Girls 
and Women), she does recognize that Canadian daughters do more than 
reject; they try to incorporate their mothers, and the past, in their present 
lives. And on this point Irvine is right. In a later article, "One Woman 
Leads to Another," Irvine correctly notes that in Two-Headed Poems 
Atwood moves conspicuously from angry attack on male gods to celebra- 
tion of female gods. This trend is expanded and refined in True Stories 
(1981) and Interlunar (1984) and to some extent in Bodily Harm (1981), 
the stories in Bluebeard's Egg (1983), and The Handmaid's Tale (1985)- In 
his recent study Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics, Frank Davey seri- 
ously misreads Atwood's system in his effort to explain her "discourse" 
and its apparent rationalist bias. For Davey, femaleness is wordless chaos; 



In Search ofDemeter 47 

hence, the clarity, precision and, at times, abstractness of Atwood's lan- 
guage unsettles him. 

4. The concept of liminality is discussed by Victor Turner in The Rit- 
ual Process: Structure and Anti- Structure, but Fricdrich adapts and 
reapplies it to explain both Aphrodite and Demeter-Persephone as occu- 
pying "intermediary" positions that override "two categories that are op- 
posed in the cultural system" (p. 147). 

5. According to DuPlessis, "The daughter artist and the blocked, usu- 
ally maternal, parent are . . . the central characters of twentieth-century 
women's Kunstlerrotnane. The maternal or parental muse and the 
reparenting motifs are strategies that erode, transpose, and reject narra- 
tives of heterosexual love and romantic thralldom" {Writirig Beyond the 
Ending, p. 94). In her self-styled autobiography. Deceived with Kindness: 
A Bloomsbury Childhood (1984), Angelica Garnett — daughter of 
Vanessa (Stephen) Bell and Duncan Grant, and niece of Virginia 
Woolf — describes and exorcises her "own ghosts." Chief among these 
"ghosts" is the silent, lost, yet still powerful Vanessa, the mother whose 
"image and personality had always obsessed me." Garnett's autobiogra- 
phy is, in fact, an attempt at biography; in telling her own story, she 
must tell her mother's (which includes identifying her father), and the 
act of telling is an arduous reconstruction, recovery, and recreation, as 
painful as birth itself. What intrigues me about this mother-daughter 
story is its structural and symbolic similarity with the central concerns 
of this paper and the implication that, whether as artist (the role 
DuPlessis privileges) or more generally as woman writer, //^rstory has a 
narrative shape of its own. For another approach to this type of fiction 
see Patricia Merivale, "The Search for the Other Woman: Joan Didion 
and the Female Artist Parable." Merivale notes various mythic elements 
in the search for the other women — Orpheus motifs, Demeter and 
Persephone bondings (especially in Didion's A Book of Common 
Prayer), and Procne and Philomela paradigms. 



5 The Transforming Eye 

Lady Oracle and Gothic Tradition 
Ann McMillan 



Gothic fantasy has for centuries romanticized the victimization 
of women. The typical paperback cover or book jacket of the mod- 
ern Gothic novel shows "a terrified woman, clad in a long, swirl- 
ing robe, who [is] fleeing from a darkened mansion lit only by a 
glow in an upper window" (Radway, "Utopian Impulse," p. 144). 
From such an illustration, one can "read" the story: the chaste 
young heroine; the mysterious house embodying vague dangers; 
the villain and hero, whose identities are confused until the penul- 
timate moment. One can read, too, the inevitable happy ending: 
the mansion, purged of its threat, blazes with candles; the heroine 
takes her place beside the hero as its rightful mistress; the villain, 
unmasked, has been rendered harmless. 

The victimization of the heroine serves a necessary function in 
the formulaic plot of Gothic fantasy. Although the heroine typi- 
cally shows independence and courage, the pattern allows her to 
do very little for herself. As Janice Radway's study shows, "the 
heroine's stubborn refusal to be cautioned or aided by others 
places her in extreme danger. When she ... is about to succumb, 
the hero conveniently arrives" (Radway, "Utopian Impulse," p. 
159). The actions of the heroine in her own behalf only create the 
need for a savior. 

In order to obtain her happy ending, the heroine must be able 
to bring both villain and hero out of the shadows, to distinguish 
between them. She does not simply recognize a hero, however; 
creation and recognition are simultaneous processes. Her need 
for salvation, her vulnerability, evokes heroic qualities in the man 
who rushes to her defense and thus becomes the hero. Her need 

48 



The Transforming Eye 49 

and his response, in turn, enable her to recognize the man who 
comes to her aid as the hero (Radway, "Utopian Impulse"; Read- 
ing Romance). 

Because perception and transformation take place together, 
this process may be called the "transforming eye." The author of 
the first true Gothic romances, Ann Radcliffe, uses the phrase in 
The Mysteries ofUdolpho (1794) to denote the Romantic sense of 
human or superhuman meaning in nature (p. 15). She adapts this 
same power — neither truly visionary nor quite deceptive — to cre- 
ate her heroine's perception of Gothic horror. As I use it here, the 
phrase refers to the Gothic heroine's ability to "decode the erratic 
gestures" (Snitow, pp. 247-48) of a potential hero and mold him 
into heroic form. The transforming eye works outside the 
heroine's conscious awareness; her initial reaction to the not-yet- 
hero typically combines dislike and attraction. When, later, she 
becomes aware of his heroic qualities and admits her love for him, 
he is a hero because she has made him one. The transforming eye 
also works to create or exaggerate terrifying situations, in order to 
make it necessary for the heroine to be saved. 

The Gothic tradition has two main branches. One branch, 
Gothic fantasy, employs the transforming eye as sketched above 
to procure a happy ending. In the second — less-known but well- 
established — tradition, Gothic naturalism, the heroine is acted 
upon by external societal forces she can neither understand nor 
control (Thrall, Hibbard, and Holman, p. 303). Works of Gothic 
naturalism inevitably end with the heroine's madness or death. 

Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle^ relies explicitly on Gothic tra- 
ditions; its heroine, Joan Foster, is a writer of Gothic romances 
who follows their promises of romantic escape in her own life. Yet 
the myth of woman as innocent victim carries a dangerous appeal 
for many of Atwood's heroines who are not explicitly linked with 
the Gothic. They, like Joan Foster, must begin their awakening to 
maturity by rejecting the notion that their passivity is innocence. 
Women's victimization and men's exploitation propel one other, 
as Atwood demonstrates repeatedly in her novels. 

Nevertheless, the transforming eye is not merely an instrument 
of patriarchy. Lady Oracle, together with Jane Austen's 
Northanger Abbey, belongs to a third category, "mixed Gothic." 
In these novels, the transforming eye represents a transitional 
stage in the moral awareness of the heroines, who begin by naively 



50 Ann McMillan 

modeling themselves on heroines of Gothic fantasy and, in so 
doing, narrowly miss the dismal fates allotted to heroines of 
Gothic naturalism. Austen and Atwood refuse the simpler resolu- 
tions of both Gothic traditions; for them, the transforming eye is 
neither malevolent nor benevolent but provides their heroines 
with opportunities for maturation and insight. 



Chastity and the Transforming Eye 

Janice Radway's study of Gothic novels written in the United 
States in the 1960s and 1970s details the inevitable process by 
which the heroine secures the help of a hero through chastity. First 
she feels a combined attraction and repulsion to the not-yet-hero; 
then the "special qualities shared by the heroine and [hero] . . . 
stand out as valuable" in contrast to other characters. Further, 
"the female foil . . . emphasizes the heroine's innocence and re- 
serve because her passionate sexuality' is . . . linked [to] her dis- 
tasteful ambition, greed, ruthlessness, and vanity" ("Utopian 
Impulse," p. 149). The heroine's chastity also contrasts with the 
sexual experience of the hero and redeems him from a life of 
promiscuity or jaded abstinence (Radway, "Utopian Impulse," p. 
149; Reading Romance, p. 126). Because he sees her as unique for 
this and other qualities, he responds to her need when "Gothic" 
dangers threaten. In the process, he is "converted," "made over," 
"transformed" — into a hero. 

Traditionally, chastity (virginity or chaste married love) was 
"a woman's only virtue" (St. Jerome) and her exercise of it her 
only action. This sentiment was expressed by countless classical 
and medieval writers, often through images of enclosure: a foun- 
tain sealed up, an enclosed garden, a walled city, a jewel kept hid- 
den. By the fifteenth century, at least one poet — perhaps a 
woman — had seen this emblematic enclosure as a maze. The As- 
sembly of Ladies opens with its narrator and four other women 
walking in a maze: 

Some went inward and thought that they were going out; some stood in 
the center and looked around them; some were at first far behind and 
then all at once had caught up with the leaders; others were so confused 
that all paths seemed alike to them. . . . Thus they pressed forth and had 



The Transforming Eye 51 

little rest; and some were so assailed with desire that for very wrath they 
stepped over the rails. (Pearsall, p. 105; my translation)^ 

Enclosure and the chastity it represents have long remained the 
ideal for women; in The Handmaid's Tale, for example, Atwood 
portrays a society in which the symbolic "maze" of constraints 
upon women's sexuality is made concrete and absolute. We rec- 
ognize in this fictional society the facts of our culture's past as 
well as a warning of its present and future. 

The "idea that it is at once absolutely necessary and extraordi- 
narily difficult to keep a young woman in the home" (McNall, p. 
3) permeates much popular fiction aimed at a female readership. 
The phrase "in the home" here is interchangeable with the words 
"virginal" and "chaste." Being "chaste" and being "in the home" 
are thought of as necessary protections for women. They can do 
nothing, however, to prevent violation by anyone unscrupulous 
enough to ignore these socially recognized boundaries. Thus, by 
giving women chastity as their protection, patriarchal society 
gives women a weapon effective only against those whom social 
constraints can bind. 

One can imagine how this paradoxical situation came about. If a 
society places crucial value on a woman's chastity, it cannot risk let- 
ting her out of the house even to learn how to protect herself and 
make mature decisions in the world. The primacy of virginal or 
chaste reputation has served as an argument even against women's 
being educated to know good from evil. Being in the house — 
remaining chaste — must therefore act as its own defense. To pre- 
vent a woman from learning to defend herself or to recognize a 
threat is inexcusable otherwise. Chastity "protects" women by ap- 
pealing to another cultural ideal — the chivalry of men. The trans- 
forming eye is Gothic fantasy's particular elaboration of this belief. 

How could women's rebellion against enclosure and igno- 
rance be expressed in literature without being encouraged in 
life? Horace Walpole unwittingly turned up an answer, which 
Ann Radcliffe and others made into a formula: the house is 
haunted. The house (castle, ruined abbey, maze) becomes a 
threat to be recognized and overcome. As Norman Holland and 
Leona Sherman point out, the Gothic castle "delineates a physi- 
cal space that will accept many different projections of uncon- 
scious material," including — they cite Sade — "shame, agony. 



52 Ann McMillan 

annihilation, . . . [and] desire" (p. 219). Women may project 
their fears of entrapment and violation into chamber doors that 
cannot be fastened from the inside, rooms in which other 
women may be imprisoned or dead, secluded passages from 
which vague threats materialize. Readers of Gothic romances 
thus experience, without risk, both desire for and fear of penetra- 
tion, as their heroines overcome challenges without leaving the 
house (Moers, p. 191; see also Atwood, Lady Oracle, p. 146). 

Gothic fantasy maintains, in general, a conservative relation- 
ship to social norms, advocating "submission to traditional gen- 
der arrangements," including female chastity, and "assumption 
of a typically female personality structure" (Radway, "Utopian 
Impulse," p. 155). Such fantasy excites fears of self-loss and viola- 
tion; it then placates them, allowing readers to enjoy tantalizing 
yet fearful pleasures and to share in the heroine's rewarded virtue. 
Both Gothics and Harlequin romances, Ann Snitow says, "pre- 
tend that nothing has happened to unsettle the old conventional 
bargain between the sexes" (Snitow, p. 253). Gothic naturalism, 
however, shows that the bargain — remain powerless, and you'll 
be taken care of — has long failed to protect women. Its heroines 
also live in danger, not from exotic villains or supernatural pow- 
ers but from forces in society and in themselves. 



II 
Gothic Fantasy 

The transforming eye that reveals a mysterious communion 
between future lovers is a staple of romantic fiction. Its particu- 
lar role in the Gothic, however, results partly from Mrs. 
Radcliffe's practicality. Unlike Walpole and "Monk" Lewis, 
Radcliffe never lets loose genuinely extrarational forces in The 
Mysteries of Udolpho. The supernatural occurrences and unnatur- 
ally horrid crimes witnessed by its heroine, Emily, turn out to be 
misperceptions of fairly commonplace horrors. Emily fears that 
her aunt has been murdered by her husband, when she is only ill 
from his mistreatment. Emily recoils from the undisclosed hor- 
ror in the usually locked room; much later, we learn that she has 
mistaken a wax effigy for an actual worm-eaten corpse. The 
transforming eye functions correctly in warning her of evil, but 



The Transforming Eye 53 

what she "sees" is invariably worse than reality. Although the 
horrors are later explained away, they have worked their charm: 
"a terror of this nature, as it occupies and expands the mind, and 
elevates it to high expectation, is purely sublime, and leads us, by 
a kind of fascination, to seek even the object, from which we ap- 
pear to shrink" (Radcliffe, p. 248). 

The attractive power of fear and danger also makes the villain of 
Udolpho, Montoni, a far more vivid and sexually charged figure than 
its colorless hero, Valancourt. Radcliffe prudishly deflects 
Montoni's sexual threat: rather than attacking Emily himself, 
Montoni tries to sell her in marriage to Morano, whose similar name 
and relatively bland character suggest that he is a mere stand-in. 
Patricia Meyer Spacks describes Montoni as "the cruel stepfather, 
who marries the aunt but lusts for the girl (he claims to want her 
money) . . ." (p. 143). Emily first sees Montoni as "a man of about 
fort\', of an uncommonly handsome person, with features manly 
and expressive, but whose countenance exhibited . . . more of the 
haughtiness of command, and the quickness of discernment, than of 
any other character" (Radcliffe, p. 23). Significandy, Emily and 
Montoni engage in those verbal battles that characterize later scenes 
between Gothic heroines and their wooers/tormenters. He storms; 
she resists and earns his grudging admiration. Because they are well- 
matched as adversaries, Emily and Montoni seem — though they 
never become — well-matched as lovers. Later readers were not 
fooled by Radcliffe's suppression of the sexual tension in their scenes 
together. Edward Fairfax Rochester and all the "thin-lipped and ra- 
pacious" (Atwood, Lady Oracle, p. 29) hero-villains to follow come 
from Montoni's mold. In Lady Oracle, for example, Joan endows 
each of her men in turn with the threatening appeal, or appealing 
threat, of Montoni. 

Although Montoni is powerful and unscrupulous, Emilv re- 
peatedly eludes and finally escapes him. By remaining chaste, and 
yet refusing to act in her own behalf, Emily maintains an almost 
supernatural moral advantage. This superiority keeps her intact 
against Montoni's disguised sexual assaults. The efficacy of wom- 
an's innocent victimhood permeates Gothic fantasy. The balance 
of power shifts, and the villains begin their transformation into 
heroes at the hands of innocent, victimized femininitv. 

Jane Eyre, first printed in 1847, has a much more memorable 
heroine than Udolpho's Emily. Jane Eyre's transforming eye per- 



54 Ann McMilla n 

ceives spiritual realities of danger and salvation that are not en- 
tirely dispelled by rational explanation. Jane's powerlessness also 
acts more forcefully in her behalf Emily merely keeps Montoni at 
bay; Jane turns a near-Montoni into an adoring lover and com- 
pleting alter ego. Jane first experiences her gift of imaginative in- 
sight when, at the age often, she suffers terror and a fainting fit in 
the red room. The moving light seen then later becomes a force 
for good, a presiding moon-goddess/mother. This force leads 
her away from Rochester at a time when their union would have 
destroyed her. It later leads her back when Rochester, cleansed by 
suffering, can share with her in an ideal union. As Sandra Gilbert 
and Susan Gubar demonstrate, the madwoman in the attic also 
acts to prevent and then to bring about the marriage. When Jane's 
entrapment in the role of governess or of bride disturb her peace 
of mind, the madwoman acts out her fears (Gilbert and Gubar, 
pp. 336-71, esp. p. 360). The madwoman represents the more terri- 
fying aspects of Jane's transforming eye, placed outside her but 
still working for her good. 

Bronte increases Jane's power manyfold by combining the vil- 
lainous Montoni and romantic Valancourt in the more complex 
hero-villain Rochester. Later writers of Gothic fantasy follow 
Bronte's lead. Although their heroes may be falsely blamed for the 
deeds of their villains, the writers promote the mistake by making 
their heroes appear callous or even vicious until transformed by 
their heroines. 



Ill 
Gothic Naturalism 

Wish fulfillment is the popular Gothic fantasy's stock-in-trade. 
A far different experience informs works of Gothic naturalism, in 
which the sterility and futility of women's lives drive them to es- 
cape into imagined worlds. For example, the heroine of Mary 
Wollstonecraft'sTW^nVi (published in 1798) escapes into romantic 
love. And The Yellow Wallpaper (1899), by Charlotte Perkins 
Gilman, narrates the mental disintegration of a sheltered wife left 
with nothing to do but turn her transforming eye upon the pat- 
tern in her wallpaper. Jean Rhys, in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), 
tells the events leading up to Jane Eyre from the point of view of 



The Transforming Eye 55 

the first Mrs. Rochester, who falls in love with her stranger- 
husband, but whose passion evokes only fear in him. Despairing, 
unsure whether to blame him or herself, she falls deeper and 
deeper into madness. These heroines, by entering their various 
dream worlds, render real escape from confining circumstances 
impossible. They may rightly blame social convention for their 
circumstances, but they fail to recognize that their own percep- 
tual and imaginative faculties also rely upon conventional no- 
tions of what women should be. 

Mary Wollstonecraft deliberately wrote her didactic message 
about women's plight in the Gothic form although she despised 
it. She seems to have felt that by doing so she could reach the very 
women most reluctant to hear her message. She introduces her 
heroine as the inmate of a madhouse, and mocks such writers as 
Radcliffe, for whose heroines these horrors are imaginary. 
Wollstonecraft describes the inmates' "groans and shrieks" as "no 
unsubstantial sounds of whistling winds, or startled birds, modu- 
lated by a romantic fancy, which amuse while they affright; but 
such tones of misery as carry a dreadful certainty directly to the 
heart" (p. 23). 

As we learn her story, we find that Maria has escaped from an 
uncaring childhood home into a worse marriage. Her husband 
has taken her money and attempted to sell his sexual rights over 
her to another man. She resists and tries to flee with their child but 
is caught and committed to the asylum, the child taken from her. 
A subplot reveals the plight of Jemima, a working-class victim of 
forced seduction who has become a keeper in the madhouse. 
Clearly, the ideal of chaste powerlessness has not saved these 
women. Their attempts to invoke women's right to protection 
have only led to sterner measures by their oppressors. 

Wollstonecraft did not live to finish Af«n« (she died in 1797), 
but fragments make her general purpose clear. Her heroine, all 
but destroyed by her experiences, has a worse one yet in store. 
While in the madhouse, she meets and falls in love with the seem- 
ingly heroic Darnford. He shows her tenderness and considera- 
tion; her transforming eye does the rest: "what chance . . . had 
Maria of escaping [love], when pity, sorrow, and solitude all con- 
spired to soften her mind, and nourish romantic wishes, and, 
from a natural progress, romantic expectations?" (p. 48). Her im- 



56 Ann McMillan 

agination "combined all the qualities of a hero's mind, and fate 
presented a statue in which she might enshrine them" (p. 49). 

After they escape from the madhouse, Maria attempts to make 
her love for Darnford her whole world. Unknown to her, this pas- 
sion forms her only inescapable prison: she depends upon him to 
give meaning to her life. He is fond of her for a time, but nothing 
more, and finally deserts her. Wollstonecraft makes Darnford not 
a calculating seducer but a well-meaning, though weak, human 
being. He is no more to blame for Maria's fate than the statue to 
which Wollstonecraft compares him. Because Maria has cast him 
as her savior, however, his loss of interest leads her to despair. One 
planned ending of the book shows Maria committing suicide. 

Maria exposes the ideal of chastity as unable to protect 
women — as, rather, an instrument of their oppression. Maria's 
husband invokes it as a source of legal power over her, although 
he is openly unfaithful to her. Again and again, Maria meets men 
and women who condemn her as unchaste and illicit simply be- 
cause she wants to leave this fiend of a husband. Yet Maria con- 
strains herself by her own formulation of the ideal of chastity. Her 
love for Darnford must be complete, unreserved; any withhold- 
ing or protection of self would seem to her "unchaste." 

Wollstonecraft prefigures Atwood in her acute awareness that a 
woman becomes a heroine by giving up power, by refusing to act 
in her own behalf. Both show that this ideal of innocent victim- 
hood is self-destructive: if total reliance upon a man fails to turn 
him into a hero, it turns him into a villain by default. 



IV 
Mixed Gothic: Northan0er Abbey and Lady Oracle 

Northan£ier Abbey (published in 1818) and Lady Oracle both com- 
bine aspects of Gothic fantasy and Gothic naturalism. Sherrill 
Grace quotes Atwood as using the term "anti-Gothic . . . for her 
third novel which she links to the treatment of Gothic in Jane 
Austen's Northan^er Abbey"" (Violent Duality, p. in). Grace con- 
trasts the two novels in terms of their narrators. Atwood's Joan 
Foster, relatively untrustworthy, tells her own story, leaving us in 
some doubt as to how seriously we should take any of it. By con- 
trast, "Jane Austen's narrator never leaves us in any doubt as to her, 



The Transforming Eye 57 

and our, ironic distance from the naive Catherine [Morland]. We 
are invited to laugh, with the narrator, at Catherine's fooHsh confu- 
sions of Gothicism and real life" {Violent Duality, p. 124; see also 
Clara Thomas). While Grace's view is thoughtful, it oversimplifies 
the novels' treatments of Gothic themes, especially the transform- 
ing eye. In both novels, the heroines misapply the simple good-or- 
evil distinctions of Gothic fantasy in situations calling for more 
complex responses. Yet both novels also use the transforming eye, 
with its simple distinctions between hero and villain, as a signifi- 
cant part in the process of their heroines' maturations. 

Undeniably, Catherine Morland of Northan^er Abbey errs in 
many perceptions, especially in believing that General Tilney has 
killed his wife. Yet, after all, she is right to recoil from him. Gen- 
eral Tilney's true villainy resembles that of Montoni: both wish to 
increase their wealth and power by arranging lucrative marriages 
for the young people in their charge. Catherine's initial naivete 
prevents her from recognizing base motives in those around her, 
and she comes to see that her imputation of Gothic evil to General 
Tilney is foolish. However, her moments of Gothic fear enable 
her to move beyond her naive vision of the world as black and 
white — the black relegated to fictional villains, the white to any- 
one she has met. She comes to a recognition of mixed virtue and 
vice in the best and worst of those around her. Catherine has in a 
sense repeated the mistakes of Radcliffe's Emily in seeing reality 
as worse than it is, but Catherine learns from her misperceptions. 
As Patricia Meyer Spacks says, Catherine, "having used her deriva- 
tive fantasies to express hostility and rebellious impulse . . . sur- 
mounts her need for them" (p. 163). 

Austen briefly but clearly states the importance of what Catherine 
has learned to her increased sense of moral complexity: 

Among the English . . . there was a general though unequal mixture of 
good and bad. Upon this conviction, she would not be surprized [sic] if 
even in Henry and Eleanor Tilney, some slight imperfection might here- 
after appear; and upon this conviction she need not fear to acknowledge 
some actual specks in the character of their father, who, though cleared 
from the grossly injurious suspicions which she must ever blush to have 
entertained, she did believe, upon serious consideration, to be not per- 
fectly amiable, (p. 202) 

Lady OracWs heroine, Joan Foster, like Catherine Morland, 
learns from her transforming eye only after it has led her into seri- 



58 Ann McAiillan 

ous mistakes. For Joan, the mistakes are much more serious. Like 
WoUstonecraft-s Maria and other heroines of Gothic naturahsm, 
she fabricates prisons of romantic self-deception. In discussing 
Joan Foster, Grace aptlv quotes Margaret Atwood's description 
of heroines who ''have become their own prisons"" (Violent Dual- 
ity, p. 5). With each man, Joan follows her transforming eye to- 
ward the happy ending it envisions ahead. She can never reach it, 
never complete the recognition-transformation process, because 
her world is not the world of Gothic fantasy. 

Each of the men important to Joan seems first hero, then vil- 
lain. She envisions them sometimes as double-natured (p. 325), 
sometimes as many-natured in a sequence (p. 236), sometimes as 
masked — good by evil, evil by good (p. ?oo). She flees from a 
lonely and banal existence into the arms of Paul, her first lover. 
Her life with him turns out to be hardly less lonely and even more 
banal. Her growing uneasiness with him necessitates her casting 
of Arthur in the role of hero. From Arthur she escapes to the Royal 
Porcupine, whose eccentric appearance promises material for he- 
roic transformation. To her horror, though, she transforms him 
backwards, into the antiheroic Chuck Brewer. Clean-shaven and 
T-shirted, Chuck is too much realit\' for Joan, who flees back to 
Arthur. When mysterious incidents make her fear that her life is in 
danger, she plans the ultimate escape by faking her own death. 

Atwood's first-person, past-tense narration shows Joan reflect- 
ing upon her experiences, recalling that "every man I'd been in- 
volved with . . . had two selves" (p. 325). She suspects them all of 
deliberately hiding one under the other in order to trap her, but 
the "two selves" are actually projections of her transforming eye. 
Like most oracles, the contradictor^' messages she receives from 
her transforming eve elude helpful interpretation. Her attempts 
to decipher and act upon them enmesh her, as similar attempts en- 
meshed Oedipus, even more deeply in danger. Since Joan, follow- 
ing the Gothic pattern, believes that she can only escape by 
finding a hero-rescuer, her attempts leave her increasingly depen- 
dent upon the next man. The Gothic novels Joan writes endorse 
the view that women, who cannot protect themselves, must be 
able to recognize and secure the devotion of men who can protect 
them. Although Joan does not share her Gothic heroines' literal 
chastit\', she models her role as an innocent victim on theirs, and 
she, too, looks for a man to be made into her savior. 



The Transforming Eye 59 

Joan Foster needs a change of perception in order to move be- 
yond passivity and self-imposed victimization. Like a heroine of 
Gothic fantasy, her fears make her dependent upon a hero. UnHke 
the fantasy heroine who faces actual danger, Joan's fears stem not 
so much from external threats as from within herself. On her es- 
capes into love Joan carries with her a heavy load of guilt, shame, 
and deception regarding her past and her "real self." Her need to 
see men as heroes, to escape into them, results from her desire to 
escape the unglamorous facts about herself. Her desire for one or 
another man is heightened by her fear that he will learn the truth 
about her. The transforming eye creates fear that, at first, incites 
her to escape, enhances her desire for the men she thinks will make 
her a heroine. Her transforming eye does not let her rest there, 
however. Each escape involves a further "sacrifice of complexity" 
(Rosowski, p. 92), since it forces Joan to deny aspects of herself 
not acceptable in a heroine. These denials create "ghosts," terrors 
resembling those of Gothic fantasy, but these ghosts are sup- 
pressed selves that return to haunt her: "I wanted to forget the 
past, but it refused to forget me; it waited for sleep, then cornered 
me" (p. 239). 

Paradoxically, modeling herself on the innocent, passive hero- 
ines of Gothic fantasy leaves Joan more and more haunted by 
guilt. Her habit of deception can be seen as a form of self- 
destruction, making "confusion and fear" (Rosowski, p. 95) in- 
crease until they become intolerable. Finally, Joan must either 
destroy her selves completely (as she has tried and failed to do) or 
enter the maze and face the ghosts she herself has created. 

The scene in which Felicia, the "female foil" of Joan's Gothic 
novel, enters the maze dramatizes Joan's "confusion and fear." 
Half fearful, half fascinated, Joan imagines her simplified projec- 
tion Felicia being drawn into the maze. The path closes behind 
her, and she is trapped with Joan's other alter egos. When she asks 
the way back, one Joan-self replies, " 'We have all tried to go back. 
That was our mistake.' " The way in which Joan's simplified, par- 
tial selves have entered the maze prevents them from getting out 
without further destruction. These selves are caught because her 
way of escape, time after time, is to tell another lie, "kill" another 
self, enter another maze — another man. The mysterious door 
they point to as the "only way out" of the maze opens to reveal 
Redmond, the Gothic hero-villain, then a series of other hero- 



6o Ann McMillan 

villains: Joan's father, Paul, the Royal Porcupine, the man with 
icicle teeth, Arthur, then Redmond again. When Joan/Felicia re- 
fuses to enter the door, saying " 'I know who you are,' " the figure 
turns into a skeleton reaching for her throat (p. 377). 

Although Joan does not share the literal chastity of her Gothic 
heroines, she believes in its passive power. Her "chastity" resem- 
bles Maria's. Both try to give themselves a form of chastity — 
sexual wholeness — by giving themselves wholeheartedly to one 
man. When the attempt fails for Maria, she commits suicide. 
When it fails for Joan, she tries again, with yet another escape into 
yet another man. Her transforming eye recasts as a villain each 
man who fails to be her rescuer, while creating for her another res- 
cuer in the wings. This frenzied flight from one transformation, 
one escape route, to the next forms both the entrapping maze and 
the destructive "way back." Rather than attempting to save herself 
by creating and entering another maze, Joan must break free of 
the pattern of mazemaking. 

Freeing herself from the transforming eye does not come about 
through a simple process of facing reality. Margaret Atwood 
makes clear that "reality" and perception cannot be fully disen- 
tangled (Grace, Violent Duality, pp. 2-3). Her novels show again 
and again that one does not break out of a destructive pattern by 
applying reason. Her heroines typically follow a downward spiral, 
falling deeper and deeper into their private visions. 

Joan Foster, the narrator of Surfacing, Marian in The Edible 
Woman, and Rennie in Bodily Harm have all been, in some sense, 
victimized by men. Their recognition of this fact is a first step in 
recovery; they must regain enough feeling to know that they hurt. 
All lose themselves for a time in complete identification with vic- 
tims: plundered nature, slaughtered animals, exploited peoples, 
and above all, victimized women. The enemy appears clearly de- 
fined: "Americans," prison guards, and, above all, men. Yet soon 
this clarity is obscured by recognition of complicity. There can be 
no villains without victims. 

Paradoxically, in the process of discovering their own guilt, 
Atwood's heroines gain a new strength. Simply stated, that 
strength comes from having glimpsed the responsibility of inter- 
relatedness. Seeing their own victimization as fueling a system of 
exploitation frees Ars\'ood's heroines from their paralyzing need 
to remain innocent. In each case, too, they have gone as far as they 



The Transforming Eye 6i 

can in making themselves victims. Cornered, physically and spir- 
itually, they must succumb to their own destruction and, by ex- 
tension, to the pattern of destruction. Or they must refuse to do 
so. Having seen the pattern for what it is, they can no longer re- 
main innocent by remaining passive; they must fight (see Christ, 

p. 44). 

Lady Oracle casts this same movement in the "mixed Gothic" 
tradition. Joan's romantic and sexual response to men is 
prefigured — some would say formed — by her early experience of 
her father and of the exhibitionist "daffodil man," who may or 
may not have rescued her from a schoolgirl prank. Of the latter, 
she asks herself whether he was "a rescuer or a villain . . . or . . . 
both at once?" (p. 67) This romantic/sexual response is mirrored 
in that of her Gothic heroines. Like them, Joan is drawn to men 
who offer both the appeal of danger and the promise of security. 
Because these qualities are intangible and subjective, she relies 
upon her transforming eye, but its transformations become more 
frustrating than satisfying. Joan enters the maze, where all her 
hero-villains in turn appear to offer her an escape that conceals de- 
struction. Her Gothic fantasies have deluded her, just as 
Catherine Morland's did. She has not been able to see the conse- 
quences of her refusal to take responsibility for her own life; in- 
stead, she has seen men on whom to project both hope and blame. 

Also like Austen's Catherine, though, Joan learns from her 
transforming eye. When carried to its extreme, her identification 
with Gothic victims empowers her to free herself from this pat- 
tern, represented by the maze. Gothic fears, unrealistic as they 
may be, keep her from resting comfortably in her state of self- 
deception and irresponsibility. When she can no longer tolerate 
being haunted by selves she has denied, she can begin to face them 
directly. Atwood uses the ghosts created by the transforming eye 
to carry a "potential for morality" (Rosowski, p. 95). The guilt cre- 
ated by deception and duplicity becomes the motivating force for 
her acceptance of responsibility. 

Joan is distracted from her fantasy of the maze by the sound of 
"real footsteps" and prepares "to face the man who stood waiting 
for me, for my life." She says, "I knew who it would be." Though 
she realizes the footsteps are real, she is still following the trans- 
forming eye in its visions of Gothic horror. Her eye tells her who 
"he" is and what he intends, but it is mistaken. Her next words 



62 Ann McMillan 

make that clear: "I didn't really mean to hit him with the Cinzano 
bottle. I mean, I meant to hit someone, but it wasn't personal. I 
guess I just got carried away: he looked like someone else" (p. 
377). The fact that she has actually injured a complete stranger be- 
cause, to her transforming eye, he "looked like someone else" at 
last frees Joan from her self-created maze. 

It is no coincidence that Joan has broken out of the maze by 
acting like one of her own Gothic heroines, who often defend 
their virtue in similar ways. We see them fend off attackers with 
such weapons as a hatpin and Boswell's Life of Johnson. Joan's 
weapon, a bottle, recalls these humorously ineffectual ones. On 
one level, Joan is again acting out one of her own plots. Yet cru- 
cial differences suggest that this act also represents something 
new and potentially freeing. First of all, her heroines are not re- 
ally defending themselves with hatpins and heavy books. No real 
attackers are deterred by such means. The heroines are in the 
process of converting these men to heroes, and what really saves 
them is their old standby, chaste helplessness. " T beg you to re- 
member, sir,' " says Joan's heroine Charlotte, " 'that I am alone 
and unprotected under your roof. Remember your duty! ' " True 
to heroic form, "Redmond looked at her with a new respect . . ." 
(p. 143). Joan acts out of identification with her chaste heroines. 
Unlike them, however, she makes no speeches and wields her 
bottle powerfully enough to do real damage. In so doing, she 
crosses the line between habitual victim and potential destroyer. 
Moreover, as Clara Thomas points out, she "can . . . recognize 
and act in her own area of choice," and "she chooses the future 
. . ." (Clara Thomas, p. 172). 

Like Atwood's other heroines, Joan strikes out for herself and 
for all those other victims, other selves: Aunt Lou, the symbolic 
"fat lady," the pallid heroines, and Felicia. In actually doing 
harm, Joan moves from the passive guilt of lying and conceal- 
ment to the active responsibility of facing what she has done. Her 
genuinely harmful act of anger and rebellion is potentially health- 
ier than her heroines' manipulative adherence to the code. Per- 
haps she realizes that if she can be both innocent and destructive, 
so can the men she has reduced to one or the other category. 
Moreover, what her transforming eye has been revealing to her in- 
directly turns out to be true. It has been right in presenting the dif- 
ferent faces of each man, leaving no one man a hero. No human 



The Transformin0 Eye 63 

being is entirely a hero or a villain. No man is; neither is she. For 
her, honesty and maturity will be possible only when she is free to 
respond to a person or situation in all its complexity and without 
suppressing one or more selves. Like Catherine, she has learned to 
face a mistake and to forgive herself. Joan has, in the last lines of 
the novel, gained at least some self-knowledge and self- 
acceptance. The man she hit, she says, is 

the only person who knows anything about me. Maybe because I've 
never hit anyone else with a bottle, so they never got to see that part of 
me. Neither did I, come to think of it. 

It did make a mess; but then, I don't think Fll ever be a very tidy 
person, (p. 380) 

At the end of the novel, Joan seems to stand clear of the maze 
at last. She may, however, create another maze for herself, if she 
lets her transforming eye cast yet another man as her savior. 
Her remark about the reporter she hit with the bottle — "there is 
something about a man in a bandage" (p. 379) — leaves this dan- 
ger open. Her self-revelation may contain a good deal of decep- 
tion and even self-deception: "I didn't tell any lies. Well, not 
very many. Some of the names and a few other things, but noth- 
ing major." Sherrill Grace points out that, because Joan is so 
untrustworthy a narrator, the whole story may be a fabrication 
{Violent Duality, p. 124). But if Joan has fabricated the story, at 
least she has made up for herself neither an unrealistic happy 
ending nor a dramatic tragic one, but an ending which is ambig- 
uous yet hopeful. We cannot rule out any possibility, and this 
openness is one of the novel's greatest strengths. Any attempt 
at a resolution, good or bad, would put us back in the realm of 
the Gothic novel in its fantastic or naturalistic mode. 

At the end, however, we can see better possibilities for Joan 
than the pattern of escape attempts. Even her thought of going on 
to write science fiction instead of Gothics can appear hopeful. 
"The future doesn't appeal to me as much as the past," she says, 
"but I'm sure it's better for you" (p. 379). In writing Gothic fan- 
tasy, Joan has shared the guilt of those writers who assure women 
that conventional female virtue will receive tangible rewards. She 
has helped to keep the house haunted with romantic fears, dis- 
tracting those trapped in it from seeing any way out save through 
a hero. Although writing about the future may represent another 



64 -^ww McMillan 

form of escape, it would at least allow her to create alternatives to 
the ideal of victimization. Without victims — to paraphrase 
Helene Cixous — patriarchy's "little circus no longer runs" (see 
Gallop, p. 133). 

Notes 

1. Page references in the text are toLady Oracle (New York: Avon, 1976). 

2. Corage, translated here as "desire," may also mean "courage" or 
"boldness." For discussion, see McMillan, pp. 27-42. 



6 Life Before Man 

^^Can Anything Be SavedV^ 
Gayle Greene 



All she wants is for both of them to be different. Not very different, a 
little would do it. Same molecules, different arrangement. All she 
wants is a miracle, because anything else is hopeless. 

Atwood 

Life Before Man 

Margaret Atwood describes Life Before Man^ in somewhat dis- 
piriting terms as a "mainline social novel" and as such of "lim- 
ited appeal" to her: "It takes place in the actual middle of a 
middling city, in the middle class, in the middle of their lives, 
and everything about it is right in the middle, and it's very claus- 
trophobic" (Schreiber, p. 209). Many readers have responded to 
the novel with a lack of enthusiasm like Atwood's own. Sherrill 
Grace calls it "Atwood's first attempt at social and domestic real- 
ism" and sees the characters as "devoid of drama or interest" in 
inner as well as outer lives: "Their responses to life, their indeci- 
siveness and triviality, envelop them like a gray blanket. . . . And 
seen against the claustrophobia of Toronto and the Royal 
Ontario Museum, these lives mirror the monotony and empti- 
ness surrounding them." Grace describes Atwood's subject — 
the "vacuity of private and public contemporary life, the empty 
inconclusiveness of modern marriage and urban existence" — as 
"more tedious than terrifying"; and she uses the same terms 
Atwood does to characterize the novel, "claustrophobic" and 
"gray," associating these qualities (as Atwood does) with "real- 
ist" fiction {Violent Duality, pp. 135-37)- 

Faced with these responses to a novel I find so powerful and 
haunting, I am reminded of the obser\'ation by one of the novel's 

65 



66 Gayle Greene 

major characters that "one woman's demon lover is another's 
worn-out shoe" (p. 213). ^ Furthermore, even though Life Before 
Man has certain quahties of social realism — its social setting is 
tangibly rendered, its characters are precisely delineated in rela- 
tion to their environments, and "nobody reappears from the 
dead," as Atwood says (Schreiber, p. 209) — in other respects it 
has more affinities with modernist than with realist fiction: the 
structure problematizes time and reality; events are filtered 
through three consciousnesses in a way that draws attention to 
problems of interpretation; and Atwood's lyrically and imagis- 
tically textured style draws attention to itself rather than offering 
a transparent medium on a knowable reality. 

Externally, nothing much happens. We begin at one point in 
time, Friday, 29 October 1976, and end at a later point in time, 
Friday, 18 August 1978. The novel is structured as a series of short 
sections, each precisely dated, each describing an event or experi- 
ence, actual or emotional, that occupies a discrete "chunk of 
time" (p. 308). The sections cover several days over a period of 
nearly two years; except for two flashbacks, they proceed chro- 
nologically. Each section is told from the point of view of one of 
the main characters, Elizabeth, Nate, and Lesje; each section be- 
gins with a precise delineation of the posture or activity of the 
character whose perspective we're in — for example, "Elizabeth 
sits," "Nate is running." Since these actions and postures are 
characteristic — we encounter them again and again — the sense 
is one of stasis. 

The action is unremarkable and unmarked by "events" that 
provide the customary framework of narrative. As Lesje reflects 
when she returns home for Christmas and finds herself unable to 
tell her parents that she's moved out of William's because she 
never told them she moved in, "Marriage is an event, a fact, it can 
be discussed at the dinner table. So is divorce. They create a frame- 
work, a beginning, an ending. Without them everything is amor- 
phous, an endless middle ground, stretching like a prairie on 
either side of each day." Though Lesje herself has "moved herself 
physically from one place to another [she] has no clear sense of 
anything having ended or of anything else having begun" (p. 192). 
The one big event, Chris's suicide, has occurred before the novel 
begins; and it is an "event" — this is Lesje's term for it (p. 293) — 
that not only compels attention, but raises the ultimate question 



Life Before Man 67 

of existence. The present action, however, occupies an "amor- 
phous middle ground" where nothing much happens — "every- 
thing right in the middle," as Atwood says. There are no mar- 
riages or divorces, and though relationships dissolve and re-form, 
change occurs imperceptibly, with little sense of anything ending 
or beginning. The plot, such as it is, involves a series of shifting 
love triangles: in-itially, the triangles consist of Nate, Elizabeth, 
and third persons Chris and Martha; Chris kills himself and Lesje 
supplants Martha as the "other woman" then supplants Elizabeth 
as the "main woman" in Nate's life; a triangle forms briefly 
around Nate, Lesje, and William, and another around Lesje, 
William, and Elizabeth. But this description makes the novel 
sound like "Atwoodian soap opera." (Rosenberg, Margaret 
Atwood, p. 126). It conveys little of the novel's real interest — for 
what Elizabeth, Nate, and Lesje really do as they go about their 
unremarkable and all-too-familiar activities, is think, and as their 
minds roam time and eternity what the novel really concerns is 
change, change which is imperceptible but constant and 
profound. 

Atwood has pared action down to a minimum, and though nei- 
ther she nor her critics seem to appreciate this, she has actually ac- 
complished what Woolf and other modernists strive for: she has 
freed the narrative from plot so that she can focus on the inner 
events that are the real adventures. Assessments of this novel as 
drab and mundane (including Atwood's own) are based on the as- 
sumption that action is the main measure of interest in a work. In 
Life Before Man the absence of event releases Atwood's imagina- 
tion from the constraints of plot to create a work as consistently 
effective as her poetry is. She has freed herself from the clumsy ma- 
chinery of Caribbean revolutions, searches for missing persons, 
and returns from the dead — though "hooked on plots" as she is 
(as she says of the protagonist o^ Lady Oracle [p. 342]), she does 
not seem to appreciate her own accomplishment.^ 



Atwood's structure draws attention both to time as the me- 
dium of life and to the way we experience time. Though each 
"chunk of time" seems static and unconnected to other chunks, 



68 Gayle Greene 

the sections cumulatively give a sense of inexorable process: "time 
will flow on; soon everyone will be one day older" (p. 83). "Time 
hasn't stood still," as the characters are made to realize more than 
once (pp. 139, 151); "it goes on" (p. 13). Two flashbacks — one to 
the moment when Nate realizes that Elizabeth and Chris are hav- 
ing an affair, the other to the moment when Elizabeth tells Nate 
that the affair is over — disrupt the chronological sequence in a 
surprising way and make the point that change has occurred. 
While we are living through time, we are unaware that processes 
are occurring; only later can we name them and frame them. As 
Lesje reflects, "The dinosaurs didn't know they were in the Meso- 
zoic. They didn't know they were in the middle" (p. 290). And she 
wonders if her boss. Dr. Van Vleet, who uses the phrase, "in my 
day," "knew it was his day at the time," "even though she herself 
does not feel that the time through which she's presently living is 
particularly hers" (p. 237). While we are young we see people and 
things as constant; thus Lesje cannot imagine her grandmothers, 
any more than Nate can imagine his mother, as ever being other 
than they are. Only when we are older can we see that everything is 
always changing: when Lesje returns to the neighborhood she 
grew up in, she is made to realize that it was "not a settled neigh- 
borhood there for eternity . . . but a way station, a campground" 
(p. 268). To understand this is to know that we are mortal: Nate, 
meeting Martha after a time and seeing that she has changed, is 
made to realize that "the world exists apart from him. ... It fol- 
lows that his body is an object in space and that someday he will 
die" (p. 276). 

The title of the novel, which specifies a time "before man," 
raises the question of evolution: if humankind is not yet "man" 
(that is, "human"), can it perhaps become human at some future 
time.> (I dislike using man to mean human, but Atwood's use of it 
makes this unavoidable.) Time itself, furthermore, presides over 
the novel, oppressive, menacing: "the past yawns around 
[Elizabeth], a cavern filled with menacing echoes" (p. 263). 
Elizabeth has an image of her body as an hourglass with sand run- 
ning through it — "When it's all gone she'll be dead" (p. 89) — and 
of "every second a pulsebeat, countdown" (p. 251). Nate, with his 
children in the Royal Ontario Museum, has a vision of time clos- 
ing in on them: "Run ... or time will overtake you, you too will be 
caught and frozen" (p. 82). The museum is more than a microcos- 



Life Before Man 69 

mic communit\' that brings the characters together on account of 
their work; it is a storehouse and symbol of the past, itself a pres- 
ence in the novel, a weight on the present. Atwood evokes a sense 
of determinism — biological, psychological, and historical — as 
oppressive as "the nightmare repetition" that haunts Doris 
Lessing's Martha Quest.* Actions are produced by "childhood 
imprintings" (p. 98) that are produced by family histories that are 
produced by history; and behind history, the past stretches back 
millenia, to prehistory and beyond, to the vast stellar spaces. The 
central question of the novel, then, is how can people change for 
the better when we are so burdened by the past? How can we make 
time an ally rather than an enemy? 

Elizabeth has the strongest sense of the nightmare repetition, 
of the sins of the elders being inflicted on the younger: "There's a 
small deadening voice in her [that] cancels choice" (p. 58) . It is she 
who best understands "childhood imprintings" (p. 98) and that 
"nothing ever finishes" (p. 188): "My mother, my father, my aunt 
and my sister did not go away. Chris won't go away either" (p. 99) • 
She has a bleak sense of herself becoming "Mmww^," source of 
pain and guilt to her children: "She will become their background 
. . . explanation for everything they find idiosyncratic or painful 
about themselves. If she makes them feel guilty enough they'll 
come and visit her on weekends. . . .[S]he'wi\lbecome My Mother, 
pronounced with a sigh" (p. 250). 

If Elizabeth sees humanity as psychologically determined, 
Lesje sees it as evolutionarily determined, "a mere dot" on "the 
tree of evolution" (p. 308). Lesje's view of humankind as a form 
of "mischievous ape" (p. 293), "a modern mammal" (p. 211), is 
corroborated by Atwood's descriptions of the way the characters 
behave, their adherence to "territorial imperatives": they mark 
boundaries, claim space, "take possession" (p. 207), exclude 
others and are themselves excluded by their markings; they "vio- 
late," "transgress," and "trespass" on one another's territories 
(see, for example, pp. 159, 169, 200, 251). After her confrontation 
with Elizabeth, who fills up the space in Lesje's office as she has 
taken over her life. Lesje recalls hearing how the dominant ape 
stares and the other lowers its eyes ("it avoids murders") and 
wishes she had spent more time studying "modern mammals" 
(p. 211).^ 

Nate, who believes that "things have to be viewed in a historical 



70 Gayle Greene 

context" (p. 67), believes in historical determinism. Atwood pro- 
vides some support for this perspective by showing family histo- 
ries in historical contexts: Nate lost his father in the war and 
Lesje's grandmothers hated one another because of Balkan poli- 
tics and antisemitism. But Atwood also evokes a longer view of 
time, an anthropological rather than a historical view, from which 
contemporary^ Canadian society is like a "primitive" society, en- 
gaged in attempts to control nature through rites and magic. Fre- 
quent references to ritual and ceremony, along with the descrip- 
tions of holidays (Halloween, Remembrance Day, Christmas, a 
birthday) that are the settings of sections, make the point that this 
is a society with its own rites and rituals. It is also a society that de- 
fines itself by excluding outsiders, as "primitive" societies do (ac- 
cording to anthropologist Mary Douglas^), and its politics are the 
collective expression of territoriality. The newspaper headlines 
Nate comes on as he is packing to leave Elizabeth, "old stories 
which come to him across time as one long blurred howl of rage 
and pain," all have to do with Canadians defending themselves 
against the encroachments of Pakistanis, Portuguese, Greeks, 
French, and "Balkanization" (pp. 201-2). Lesje, who as a for- 
eigner and outsider has firsthand experience of this xenophobia, 
suspects nationalism of any sort and argues that World War II was 
a matter of "grab and counter-grab," against William's defense of 
it in moral terms (p. 28). Elizabeth also sees politics as a mask for 
territoriality, as "contests between men ... in which she's ex- 
pected to be at best a cheerleader" (p. 59); and Nate cannot under- 
stand how she can sleep through the election returns, which he 
finds the most exciting event since the first Russian-Canadian 
hockey series (p. 70). (Though Elizabeth and Lesje are critical of 
male power-grabs, Atwood shows the women to be more territor- 
ial, in personal terms, than the men: whereas Nate refuses to fight 
with Chris over Elizabeth as if she were "a female dog," viewing it 
instead as "a matter of human dignity" [pp. 174-75], Elizabeth 
thinks of Nate as a bone [p. 203] and contests Lesje for possession 
of him.) 

The long view of time evoked by the novel produces a complex 
effect. On the one hand, it reduces human life, showing the char- 
acters to be determined by forces so huge that they can barely 
begin to comprehend them. They are the sum total of their pasts, 
their own and others', the "sediment" (p. 308) or "repositor)'^" of 



Life Before Man 71 

the past: Robert Rubenstein describes them as "fossilized," 
"mounted specimens," like "museum exhibits" (pp. 101-2). On 
the other hand, this view of time widens the scope of the novel and 
gives a sense of the range and power of the human imagination. 
As Elizabeth sits and Nate runs and Lesje goes about her daily ac- 
tivities, their minds move through time, through various pasts 
and possible futures, evoking a universe of potential. Though 
their actions fix them in consequences, their imaginations are not 
so confined: they are free to construct alternatives, to consider 
roads not taken (as when Nate imagines a time before his mar- 
riage, "when all directions still seemed possible" [p. 199J) and to 
imaginatively explore roads that might have been taken or still 
might be taken (as when Elizabeth imagines various funerals and 
possible "futures" for Chris [pp. 158-60] or when she "walks 
through the future, step by step," thinking "it can go two ways 

..."[p. 204]). 

We follow their imaginations as they explore their own pasts 
and futures and construct possible pasts and futures for the spe- 
cies. Nate's is the shortest view; his realm, history, is the shallow- 
est and least significant dimension of life. Lesje provides a 
longer view, with her understanding of prehistory, a perspective 
from which humanity is a small part of the large process of evolu- 
tion, and whether we survive is not all that important: "the dino- 
saurs didn't survive and it wasn't the end of the world" (p. 27). 
Elizabeth provides the longest perspective, with her intimations 
of eternity. Her proximity to Chris's suicide puts her closest to 
the ultimate question of existence and brings the possibility of 
extinction — "that piece of outer space he'd carried" (p. 301) — 
into the novel. She hears voices and feels Chris's breath on her 
neck; and on her visit to the planetarium, she is not surprised to 
learn that "someday our sun will explode" (p. 72). In the open- 
ing scene, Elizabeth is lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling: 
"Nothing will happen, nothing will open, the crack will not 
widen and split and nothing will come through it. All it means is 
that the ceiling needs to be repainted" (p. 12). In Lessing's Af^w- 
oirs of a Survivor (published five years earlier), the wall does open 
to reveal a transcendent realm, but in Life Before Man there 
seemingly is nothing on the other side. As Elizabeth knows, 
however, there is nothingness on the other side, a nothing so men- 
acing as to be something, an absence so strong as to be a pres- 



72 Gayle Greene 

ence: "She knows about the vacuum on the other side of the ceil- 
ing," the "black vacuum" into which she could be pulled "like 
smoke" (p. 12). Elizabeth's imagination is finely tuned to the 
void, to "the rushing of wind, the summoning voices she can 
hear from underground, the dissolving trees, the chasms that 
open at her feet. . . . She has no difficulty seeing the visible world 
as a transparent veil or a whirlwind. The miracle is to make it 
solid" (p. 302). 

Thus, time is the novel's subject and setting: the "middle 
ground" that the characters occupy is the present time, the "way 
station" we pass through on our way from birth to death, our 
mortal lives. Far from being claustrophobic. Life Before Man 
opens out on all time and eternity. Far from being uneventful, it 
concerns the movement of life through time and addresses the 
subject of change, the possibility of creating "something new" 
against the weight of the past. Though the social, psychological, 
and biological determinism Atwood suggests in the novel makes 
"human dignity" or "freedom" improbable, these characters do 
attain freedom and dignity. Nate's mother sees people as "prod- 
ucts of their environment . . . [but] manages to combine this view 
with a belief in human dignity and free will"; and though "Nate 
doesn't feel capable of this logical contradiction" (p. 273), 
Atwood is capable of it. Against all odds, in spite of the causality 
to which events are chained, people "nevertheless" change; and 
the world nevertheless recurs, to suggest the improbably, "illogi- 
cal," "miraculous" nature of change. 



II 

At the outset, the novel's three main characters are stuck in situ- 
ations that leave them repeating the patterns of the past, locked 
into old defenses, and (though they are in relationships) uncon- 
nected and alone. Each character is delineated in relation to a fam- 
ily that has made her or him what s/he is, thus accounting for 
present actions and attitudes. Each is fixed in a backward-looking, 
unproductive relation to time: Elizabeth, needing all her energies 
to cope with the past, cannot imagine a future; Nate is nostalgic 
for "former times," which he thinks of as the "olden days, like a 
bygone romantic era" (p. 15); and Lesje "is wandering in prehis- 



Life Before Man 73 

tory," her "idea of a restful fantasy," knowing that "she's regress- 
ing" (pp. 18-19). As the love triangles shift, though, Nate and 
Lesje move out of relationships that prevent them from changing 
and into relationships that liberate them to larger possibilities; 
and though Elizabeth is left alone, she too arrives at a place where 
she can realize her better potential. Each makes a connection of 
some sort; each learns to go with time, to accept its forward move- 
ment, to make time an ally; and each of the women develops a ca- 
pacity for compassion that counters the processes by which the 
sins of one generation are inflicted on the next. 

Elizabeth is the most damaged and damaging of the three, 
which is why she has the strongest sense of "the nightmare repeti- 
tion." Her childhood was sufficiently horrendous to destroy her 
only sibling, her sister Caroline. Their father walked out when 
they were children, "was suddenly not there anymore" (p. 136), at 
which point "space became discontinuous" (p. 150); their mother 
gave up and also disappeared. Auntie Muriel stepped in and took 
over "and worked at developing those parts of Elizabeth that 
most resembled Auntie Muriel and suppressing or punishing the 
other parts" (p. 137)- 

Elizabeth's relations with people are defenses against her ter- 
ror of the void. She marries Nate for safety and becomes involved 
with Chris "to be the center" (p. 161). When Nate begins to move 
out of the position assigned him, outer space again threatens: 
"Stay in your place, Nate, I will not tolerate that void" (p. 162). 
The ceiling that was ripped off by Chris's death has begun to 
"heal over" (p. 162), but when Nate moves out of place, the 
cracks between the boards widen; "gray light wells from them, 
cold. Dry ice, gas, she can hear it, a hushing sound, moving to- 
wards her face. It eats color"; "somewhere out there [in the dark 
of outer space] the collapsed body floats . . . tugging at her with 
immense gravity. Irresistible. She falls towards it, space filling 
her ears" (p. 205). 

Elizabeth has so strong a sense of determinism because she sees 
herself becoming the Auntie Muriel she has always feared and 
hated. In her better moments, Elizabeth can be quite clear about 
this. She knows that Auntie Muriel was destructive because of 
what was done to her: "Auntie Muriel was thwarted in her youth. 
She had a domineering father who stunted her and wouldn't let 
her go to college because college was for boys. . . . Auntie Muriel 



74 Gayle Greene 

had a strong personality and a good mind and she was not pretty, 
and patriarchal society punished her. These things are all true" (p. 
120). Still, Elizabeth insists that Auntie Muriel is accountable for 
the damage she has done: "Nevertheless . . . given her own suffer- 
ings, why has Auntie Muriel chosen to transfer them, whenever 
possible, to others?" (p. 120). In an imaginary conversation 
Elizabeth has with a psychologist she decides against seeing, she 
tries to accept responsibility for herself: "I am an adult and I do 
not think I am merely the sum of my past. I can make choices and I 
suffer the consequences" (p. 99). Nevertheless, she finds herself 
incapable of preventing herself from doing to others what has 
been done to her. 

If Auntie Muriel plays chess with her dead relatives (p. 123), 
Elizabeth makes pawns of everyone in her life. Imagery relating to 
games and war is associated with her movements, as she maneu- 
vers people into positions that empower her (pp. 180, 204, 213, 
260-61, 263). She treats Martha like the "kitchen help" (p. 34), 
Chris like the chauffeur (p. 97); she makes Lesje feel like "a kind of 
governess" just "hired for a job she hasn't applied for" (p. 21 1); she 
tries to "supervise" Nate's affair with Lesje as she had his affair 
with Martha (p. 147). She assumes the powers, actual and imagi- 
nary, of Auntie Muriel, and others have fantasies about her like 
hers of Auntie Muriel: Nate imagines her dissolving, just as she 
imagined Auntie Muriel disintegrating like the wicked witch of 
Oz (pp. 139, 279; 218, 258); Lesje imagines Elizabeth as a prehis- 
toric monster just as Elizabeth's children see Auntie Muriel as "a 
mammoth or a mastadon" (pp. 265, 120). Whereas Auntie Muriel 
was the spider in Elizabeth's version of the spider and the fly (p. 
119), spider imagery accrues to Elizabeth in the spider plants that 
surround her: and now Elizabeth sits in "her parlor" and draws 
people into "her net" (p. 258) (in this parlor are carefully selected 
and exquisite things. Auntie Muriel having taught Elizabeth that 
"money counts" [p. 137]). Elizabeth finds herself "using Auntie 
Muriel's phrases," speaking "the doctrine according to Auntie 
Muriel" ("if you really love someone you're willing to make cer- 
tain sacrifices" [p. 262]); and she even expresses Auntie Muriel's 
xenophobia when she patronizes Lesje as "someone with unusual 
interests" (Lesje has the impression that she meant "something 
Y\kc forei0ner^'' [p. 211]). 

Doing to others what was done to her, she uses her children as 



Life Before Man 75 

"counters in the bargaining process with Nate" (p. 204). She 
wants the best for them, but she also manipulates them: "she 
wants them to be happy. At the same time she wants to hear of in- 
juries, atrocities, so she can virtuously rage" (p. 250). She has pride 
in them — they are her accomplishments — but she also would like 
to eradicate Nate's part in them as Auntie Muriel tried to eradi- 
cate her mother's part in her. 

What enables Elizabeth to change is partly Nate's leaving, and 
partly a change in her relation to Auntie Muriel — a perception of 
her as a person, that releases a new capacity for forgiveness in her. 
As Auntie Muriel is dying, Elizabeth sees feelingly what she has 
known all along, that behind Auntie Muriel's cruelty was a cruelty 
done to her (" 'your mother was always the favorite,' " Auntie 
Muriel tells her), and in this scene, "to Elizabeth's horror," 
Auntie Muriel begins to cry, "a reversal of nature, a bleeding 
statue, a miracle." Although Elizabeth hates Auntie Muriel and 
will not forgive her, and although Elizabeth is "no priest" and un- 
able to "give absolution," "nevertheless, nevertheless, she whis- 
pers: It's all right. It's all right" (pp. 281-82). At the funeral, the 
bizarre service Auntie Muriel has arranged ("the result of prema- 
ture senility" or "a joke.>") makes Elizabeth wonder if Auntie 
Muriel "might be other than what she seemed" (p. 299). Torn by 
conflicting emotions, Elizabeth giggles hysterically, then faints; 
and when she comes to, "she feels the horrified relief of someone 
who has stopped just in time to watch an opponent topple in slow 
motion over the edge" (p. 301). Though this episode has been read 
as signifying the rebirth of Auntie Muriel in Elizabeth (Hutch- 
eon, p. 24), actually, the Auntie Muriel in her is the defeated "op- 
ponent." Elizabeth has salvaged something "despite the wreck- 
age": "she's still alive . . . she holds down a job even. She has two 
children"; "she's managed to accomplish a house. . . .She's built a 
dwelling over the abyss, but where else was there to build it? So 
far, it stands" (pp. 301-2). 

That what has been reborn is Elizabeth's better potential is cor- 
roborated by the last section of the novel, where her imagination 
is released to a fantasy, not of horror, but of a better life, a fantasy 
prompted by the Chinese art exhibition she's curated. When she 
first reads the catalog about the China exhibition, she can't bring 
herself to care (p. 86), but at the end, looking at the pictures, she is 
moved: "Elizabeth blinks back tears: foolishness, to be moved by 



76 Gayle Greene 

this. This is propaganda" (p. 316). For the first time, she reahzes 
how alone she has been and has a vision of a connection with oth- 
ers. She knows "China does not exist. Nevertheless, she longs to 
be there." Whereas in the first line of the novel Elizabeth is think- 
ing "I don't know how I should live," the last line — 
"Nevertheless she longs to be there" — offers a possible "should," 
a communal ideal that she knows is Utopian but longs for "never- 
theless." In terms of external event, nothing good happens to 
Elizabeth: her husband leaves her and her aunt dies. But again, 
plot is no measure of what actually happens, for the most signifi- 
cant events are internal; and there are stirrings of new life in 
Elizabeth as important as those in Lesje, as her imagination and 
compassion come to life. 

Lesje knows that in any competition with Elizabeth for un- 
happy childhoods, she would lose (p. 292). Lesje is the daughter 
of a mother who wants only her happiness; in fact, "Lesje's happi- 
ness is her mother's justification" (p. 196). Though this puts a bur- 
den of another sort on her, it leaves her less damaged than 
Elizabeth, less defended, and more capable of change. (Thus, 
Lesje walks down the street glancing "into the windows of dress 
shops," "looking for something that might become her, some- 
thing she might become" [p. 26], whereas Elizabeth "knows what 
she looks like and she doesn't indulge in fantasies of looking any 
other way. She doesn't need her own reflection or the reflections 
of other people's ideas of her or of themselves" [p. 57])- But Lesje, 
too, has been subject to the manipulation of elders: Lesje's Chris- 
tian Ukrainian and Jewish Lithuanian grandmothers fight for 
possession of her, cursing one another and trying to wipe out the 
other's part in her — "each thought she should scrap half her chro- 
mosomes, repair herself, by some miracle" (p. 65) . This has left her 
divided and weakened: though it "should have made her 
trilingual . . . instead she was . . . bad at English, plodding, a poor 
speller" (p. 94), left without any language until she discovers the 
language of science — "the names [of the rocks] were a lan- 
guage. . . . The names of the dinosaurs . . . were even more satis- 
factory" (p. 94). And though Lesje is a foreigner and Elizabeth 
appears to be ^""haute Wasp,'''' both women have a sense of imper- 
manence, and Lesje seeks the sort of security in William that 
Elizabeth sought in Nate. Whereas Elizabeth's intimation of the 
universe as whirlwind is terrifying (p. 302), though, Lesje finds it 



Life Before Man 77 

"soothing" that "she is only a pattern. She is not an immutable 
object. There are no immutable objects. Some day she will dis- 
solve" (p. 169). Lesje's imagination puts her in touch not with the 
abyss, but with a prehistory which is beautiful and serene. 

What Lesje "accomplishes" is not a house, but an edifice of an- 
other sort — "a palace built in the pursuit of truth," with herself a 
"guardian" of the past (p. 308). Paleontology is not "the bone 
business," as her father calls it (p. 194), but something imagina- 
tive and alive. Her fantasy life is the most creative and original of 
all the characters'; and though it is sometimes "flight," it is more 
often "exploration" — and she understands the distinction (p. 
264). As she wonders, the day Nate's children come to the mu- 
seum, how she can explain "why she does this, why she loves 
doing this," she recalls when "they found the Albertosaurus, a 
thigh, a vertebra," and "she'd wanted to cry," '■''Live Again! . . . 
like some Old Testament prophet, like God, throwing up her 
arms, willing thunderbolts; and the strange flesh would grow 
again, cover the bones, the badlands would moisten and flower" 
(pp. 80-81). She wants to discover a new kind of dinosaur that 
she'll name ^''Aliceosaurus'''' (p. 194), a new land that she'll name 
^''Lesj eland,'" "tropical, rich and crawling with wondrous life 
forms" (p. 92). The night they play Lifeboat at Elizabeth's dinner 
party, a game that requires each character to describe why she or 
he deserves to be saved, Lesje, panicking at a sense of her own 
superfluousness ("what is she good for?" [p. 156]), "clutching for 
lucidity," defends the study of bones: 

Everyone has a certain number of bones. . . . Not their own but someone 
else's and the bones have to named, you have to know what to call them, 
otherwise what they are, they're lost, cut adrift from their own meanings, 
they may as well not have been saved for you. You can't name them all, 
there are too many, the world is fiill of them, it's made of them, so you 
have to choose which ones. Everything that's gone before has left its 
bones for you and you'll leave yours in turn. (p. 157) 

Though this doesn't make entirely good sense, Lesje manages to 
suggest that the naming of bones is a way of retrieving, redeeming 
the past — lest it, and we, be "lost." 

At the outset, Lesje is in a relationship that is "settled": William 
"sees no reason why anything should ever change" (p. 19), and she 
is no more able than Elizabeth or Nate to dislodge herself from 
her situation. But she does have the saving instinct to respond to 



78 Gayle Greene 

Nate's advances, attracted to the 'adult world" he represents, 
"where choices had consequences, significant, irreversible" (p. 
221). When Nate remains in his marriage, she is initiated into an 
adult world where she learns "more than she ever intended to, 
more than she wants" (p. 295), and is made more miserable by her 
love for Nate than she was by her lack of feeling for William: she 
"feels she's blundered into something tangled and complex, tenu- 
ous, hopelessly snarled" (p. 208). As Nate remains entangled in 
his domestic mess and unable to shift his allegiances, Lesje's sense 
of unbelonging increases and she finds herself wishing "to be en- 
dorsed, sanctified, she doesn't care who by. She wants a mother's 
blessing" (p. 269). She also comes to understand why Chris killed 
himself: "it was the anger and the other thing, much worse, the 
fear of being nothing. People like Elizabeth could do that to you, 
blot you out; people like Nate, merely by going about their own 
concerns. Other peoples' habits could kill you. Chris hadn't died 
for love. He'd wanted to be an event" (p. 293). Backed into a cor- 
ner by Nate's behavior, she considers killing herself, but rather 
than committing suicide, she flushes her birth control pills down 
the toilet — committing this action "with some deliberation" 

(P- 293). 
As ambiguous an action as this is, it is also a way of asserting her 

existence, her identity, by making a connection: "If children were 
the key, if having them was the way she could stop being invisible, 
then she would goddamn well have some herself (p. 293). 
Though she thinks "surely no child conceived in such rage could 
come to much good," she is nevertheless "unrepentant" (p. 293). 
She has joined the adult world where actions have consequences, 
by doing something of consequence: "It's hard to believe that 
such a negligible act of hers can have measurable consequences 
for other people. . . . She's not used to being a cause of anything at 
all." But it is a creative rather than a destructive "event," an ac- 
ceptance of forward-looking processes, a going with time rather 
than regressing; she could "stop time" by having an abortion, but 
this is not what she wants (p. 308). 

Moreover, she has a "new idea" at the end of the novel that sug- 
gests that she will be capable of meeting the situation she has cre- 
ated. Coming upon Elizabeth unexpectedly, seeing her standing 
alone and gazing over the balustrade into the rotunda of the mu- 
seum, she has a glimpse of her as "ordinary, mortal"; though 



Life Before Man 79 

"she's used to thinking of EHzabeth as permanent, like an icon," 
she suddenly sees her as part of the processes to which ail of them, 
including the children, are subject. This makes her wonder if she 
and Elizabeth will still be warring twenty years hence: "It occurs 
to her, a new idea, that this tension between them is a difficulty for 
the children. They ought to stop" (p. 309). Lesje's understanding 
of processes enables her to stop doing to others what her grand- 
mothers did to her, and her "new idea" is a first sign of compas- 
sion toward others, a first step in countering the processes by 
which pain is transmitted from one generation to the next. On her 
way home to tell Nate, Lesje wonders if he will forgive her: though 
"she would prefer instead to forgive, someone, somehow, for 
something . . . she isn't sure where to begin" (p. 311). She has 
begun: she has set in motion the process by which curses are trans- 
formed to blessings, and made a beginning to the end of the 
"nightmare repetition"; and since she is about to become a 
mother, this is "a mother's blessing." 

Of the three main characters, Nate changes the least. But then 
he needs to change least, since he is the least damaged: he already 
has a "mother's blessing." In absence of a father (who supposedly 
died a "war hero" though actually died of hepatitis), he has been 
doted on by a loving mother, the "apple of her eye," "the perpet- 
ual spotlight in which he's always lived, alone on stage, the star 
performer" (p. 134). Nate's mother combines — another of her 
illogicalities — a cheerful nature with a belief in disaster: "Never- 
theless . . . crusader, dauntless astronomer, charting new atroci- 
ties, sending out her communications . . . unaware of the futility 
of what she is doing" (p. 42). Nate is a shallower character than 
any of the women in the novel. Whereas all the women, including 
his mother, have contemplated suicide, Nate never does confront 
that ultimate question; as Elizabeth knows, he does not know 
about "that freedom, that exit" (p. 261). His fantasy life is the 
most banal, which is in a way appropriate — since history is where 
"he lives," his thought is the most culturally determined. His idea 
of domestic bliss is "left over from some Christmas cards of the 
forties" (p. 232); his fantasy of escape is a raft trip down the Ama- 
zon (p. 255); his paradise is a grade B movie, "late-movie scenar- 
ios" (p. 235), rather than the ideal of communal effort that 
Elizabeth glimpses. Yet he is also the most sympathetic male in 
Atwood's fiction, and the most fully depicted.^ 



8o Gayle Greene 

Nate's vision of Lesje is taken from "a Saturday matinee of She"" 
(p. 71). Though this vision is cliched, it is powerful and creative: 
"by seeing how beautiful she is he's made her beautiful" (p. 246); 
and Lesje becomes "addicted to Nate's version of her" though she 
knows "that the picture he's devised of her is untrue" (p. 267). It is 
his vision of her and hers of him that enable both of them to 
change. But though Nate turns to her seeking "salvation" and 
"blessing" (p. 25), he is also drawn to her because he wants to pro- 
tect her — which is unusual for him, as Elizabeth realizes: "Before, 
he wanted to be protected. . . . But this time he wants to protect" 
(p. 162). 

Nate is also changed by a revelation — like Elizabeth's — that ena- 
bles him to see a parent as a person. In a scene toward the end of the 
novel, his mother amazes him by revealing that she turned to politi- 
cal work not from hope but from despair — as an alternative to sui- 
cide after his father died. Nate is made to realize that she is more 
complex and cynical, more like himself, then he had ever imagined: 
"It's not only the revelation but the unexpected similarity^ to him- 
self that appalls him. He has thought her incapable of such despair" 
(p. 287). This new perspective on the past jolts him into a new view 
of time, a vision of a future when his daughters will be women, "de- 
manding," "rejecting," "blaming," "criticizing," "judging" him 
(p. 287). Nate's response is characteristic — he runs. This time, 
however, he also does something uncharacteristic — he leaps, 
"aim[ing] for . . . that nonexistent spot where he longs to be" (p. 
288), a place he had formerly feared being, "in mid-air, hurtling to- 
ward a future he can't imagine" (p. 163). 

Though Nate has despaired of political action, he is, in the 
course of the novel, drawn back into political work — partly be- 
cause of this new sense of kinship w^ith his mother, and partly be- 
cause he is feeling more hopeful. He is hailed as 

What he's spent so much effort to avoid becoming: his mother's son. 
Which maybe he is. 

But not only, not only. He refuses to be defined. He's not shut, time 
carries him on, other things may happen. . . . (pp. 305-6) 

He is, at the end, ever hopeful ("his mother's son"), expecting 
"some news," some message, from the evening's news: "Perhaps 



Life Before Man 8i 

there will finally be some news. A small part of him still waits, still 
expects, longs for a message, a messenger" (p. 306) 

He will get a message that night, for (we know what he does 
not) Lesje is about to tell him she's pregnant. In his last scene, he 
is running, thinking about meeting Lesje: "He anticipates this 
moment, which he cannot predict, which leaves room for hope 
and also for disaster" (p. 314) — the terms indicating his surrender 
to processes of change. It is true that he is — as he sees himself — 
"helplessly molded by the . . . demands and . . . disapprovals of 
the women he can't help being involved with" (p. 41). The 
women are the stronger characters, their imaginations the more 
powerful, and their strengths are connected with maternity and 
the territoriality it entails (as Hutcheon say, the creative act of 
Lesje's pregnancy becomes the paradigmatic act of creation in the 
novel [p. 29]). But Nate is also liberated from a relationship with 
someone who sees him as a failure into a relationship with some- 
one who takes him seriously; and, as the novel ends he and Lesje 
are moving toward one another, accepting the forward move- 
ment of time and a new connection. 

Ill 

Nate is not the only character who has difficulty reconciling the 
logical contradiction of his mother's position that people are the 
products of their environments but are "nevertheless" capable of 
dignity; that people are the products of their pasts but are never- 
theless responsible for who they are and what they do. Against the 
determinism that Atwood evokes, however, the characters do at- 
tain a degree of freedom and dignity. My sense of the novel's end- 
ing differs from that of Sherrill Grace, who reads it as hopeless 
("Elizabeth, Nate, and Lesje will simply go on, unable to feel and 
unaware that they are already museum pieces, gray dinosaurs. The 
lesson ... is that history repeats itself [Violent Duality, p. 138]), 
and from that of Linda Hutcheon, who suggests that "nothing 
has changed" (p. 26).^ I see the characters as changing and 
countering the processes of repetition. To the challenge of Life- 
boat, to Elizabeth's question about the marriage — "Can any- 
thing be saved? Meaning this wreck" (p. 100) — the answer is yes, 
something has been saved. The characters salvage something 



82 Gayle Greene 

from the wreck, from the "shrapnel" of an "exploding family" (p. 
266). Elizabeth "accomplishes" a house and children and attains a 
glimmer of a better life; Lesje, who has been "guardian" of the 
past, has a "new idea" that will enable her to provide for the future 
as well. Nate and Lesje move out of dead-end relationships and 
into relationships with people who have larger images of them; 
and though Elizabeth ends alone, she too is liberated — from 
Nate's view of her; she has gained "freedom from . . . that con- 
stant pained look which is worse than nagging . . . like a huge mir- 
ror in which her flaws are magnified and distorted. . . . She'll be 
free of that. ... It will mean she'll have to carry out the garbage 
bags herself on garbage day, but she thinks she can live with that" 
(p. 206). Her imagination is liberated to conceive of better possi- 
bilities. Even Martha shows signs of progress. Each ends with the 
capacity to imagine better things and to make new connections. 
Their changes counter the relentless nightmare of repetition and 
are steps in the slow, painful process toward becoming human. 

If there is hope on an individual level, is there hope for the spe- 
cies? Can anything be salvaged from the wreckage of the world, 
the "howl of pain and rage" that rises from the newspapers? The 
echoes of Eliot's The Waste Land and "The Hollow Men" point 
to this central question. Elizabeth recalls a line that sounds like a 
misquote of "The Hollow Men": ''''We are the numb. Lon^ years 
a£o/ We did this or that. And nowwe sit" (p. 100); Nate feels like "a 
tin man, his heart stuffed with sawdust" (p. 241); Lesje's desire to 
make the dinosaur bones live recalls Tiresias's metaphors and the 
central question of The Waste Land — "Shall these bones live?" 
Can the contemporary world be redeemed? To this question, 
Atwood offers little hope. For the social injustices Nate and his 
mother contemplate, there is no remedy; if change is possible, it 
will not be accomplished through political action. In this sense I 
would have to agree with other readers that Atwood's vision is 
hopeless — though these are not the terms in which they have read 
the novel, or the terms in which Atwood encourages us to con- 
sider the novel. Change may occur on the personal level, but there 
is no suggestion that the personal is political; and this dissocia- 
tion is characteristic of the late seventies when Life Before Man 
was written, the "post-feminist" generation in which (as 
Elizabeth and others have noted) "women's lib is on the wane" (p. 
275). The most we can hope for is a separate peace, a private salva- 



Life Before Man 83 

non, some connection to another human being, some shelter 
from the void. Build houses, cultivate our gardens, raise families 
to stem the tide; do unto others as we would have them do unto us 
rather than as zhcy bare done to us; harness our imaginations to 
creative rather than destructive uses — and perhaps do some polit- 
ical work, in the hopes of making a better world, knowmg that our 
efforts will be futile. Perhaps the species will evolve, and evolu- 
tion will occur a's a kind of sum total of the r\pe of individual 
change that occurs in the novel — "or not, as the case may be" 
(p. 27). 



Xotts 

1. Page references in the text are to the following: Life Before Man 
(New York: Simon and Schuster, i9"9); Lady Oracle (New York: 
Avon, i9"6). 

2. Arnold E. Daxidson and Cathy N. Daxidson also call the novel bleak 
("Prospect and Retrospect in Life Before Man," p. 205). There does seem 
to be something forbidding about it which makes it the least liked of 
Atwood's novels — '^astringent" is Roberta Rubenstein's term for it in 
Boundaries of the Self (p. 108). It is also the least written about: the most re- 
cent anthology-, Margaret Atwood: Reflection and Reality, edited by 
Barbara Mendez-Egle, contains essays on all the novels except this one. 

3. Frank Davey reveals a similar confusion of external with internal 
event when he suggests that Life Before ^\lan, unlike Atwood's other no\- 
els, "has no climactic moment"; elsewhere in Arwood's fiction, Davey ar- 
gues, "climaxes give each character a sense of deep change, and 
con\-iction that something new awaits them," a "cathartic breakthrough 
to new hope," whereas this novel affirms "the continuing power of the 
past" (Margaret Atwood, pp. 85-86). Actually the novel shows "break- 
through" to "something new" yet dissociates internal development from 
external event in a way that minimizes dependence on plot. 

4. Martha Quest is overwhelmed by a sense that her beha\-ior is deter- 
mined by repetitive cycles — biological, psychological, social, 
historical — which she terms "the nightmare repetition^ in Lessing's A 
Proper ^Marriage (pp. — , 95); and she thinks "it was time to move on to 
something new" in Martha Quest (pp. 7-8). The phrase "something 
nev^-" recurs throughout The Children of Violence (see, for example. 
Martha Quest, pp. 53, 1+1. 216; Landlocked, p. 11-) and 77?^^ Golden Note- 
book (pp. 61, 355, +-2--5, 4~9), and it points to the central concern of 
Lessing's fiction — which is a central focus of Atwood's fiction as well. 

5. Lesje also sees herself as a herbivore (p. 19) and an "appeaser" (p. 62); 
she thinks of the children in the museum who throw things at the dino- 
saur exhibits as "mammal cubs, jeering their old enemies" (p. 183). 

6. Mar\' Douglas suggests that "ideas about separating, puribk-ing. de- 
marcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to 



84 Gayle Greene 

impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exagge- 
rating the difference between within and without, above and below, male 
and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created" (p. 4). 

7. This is the first time Atwood represents a male character from 
within, and the last time, since her subsequent novels return to the female 
perspective. Whereas in her other novels, we are within the perspective of 
one female consciousness, here we move among three consciousnesses, 
one of which is male. This gives the novel a breadth her other novels 
lack — which is another reason I do not find it "claustrophobic." 

8. Davey suggests that Nate has moved from one doomed relation- 
ship to another and that "for all three characters the novel has barely 
moved past its opening lines" {Margaret Atwood, pp. 81-82). Davidson 
and Davidson read it as an old-fashioned, closed ending, which coun- 
ters the promise or at least the possibilities implicit in twentieth-century 
fictional indefiniteness ("Prospects and Retrospect," pp. 219-20). 
Grace sees it as an open ending — "Li/> Before Man has a final page, but 
no conclusion, no finality, no anagnorisis'''' {Violent Duality, p. 138) — 
but as hopeless nevertheless. 



7 The Here and Now of 
Bodily Harm 

Lorna Irvine 



I think "feminine literature" is an organic, translated writing . . . trans- 
lated from blackness, from darkness. Women have been in darkness for 
centuries. They don't know themselves. Or only poorly. And when 
women write, they translate darkness. 

Marguerite Duras 

From an interview by Susan Husserl-Kapit 

Isn't the final goal of writing to articulate the body? For me the sensual 
juxtaposition of words has one function: to liberate a living past, to lib- 
erate matter. 

Chantal Chawaf 
"Linguistic Flesh" 

With the opening words of Margaret Atwood's novel Bodily 
Harm, "this is how I got here,"i the reader, along with the main 
character, Rennie, is drawn into a labyrinthine plot that uses the 
themes and images of earlier Atwood novels, poems, and criti- 
cism in order to make a radical statement about female sexuality, 
the political body, and the female text. It is a terrifying novel, a 
mystery that systematically confuses characterization, plot devel- 
opment, setting, and even genre. Surrealism embues the story, 
making ambiguous its temporal orientation as well as its location. 
Although the opening sentence implies a specific time (the pres- 
ent) and space (here), the novel in fact refuses clarification in 
favor of a nightmarish literary landscape that condenses the char- 
acters and displaces the affects. Throughout, plots and subplots 
intermingle, and the repetition of both words and images creates 
a ritualistic pattern that often suspends movement. A number of 

85 



86 Lorna Irvine 

italicized language fragments, seemingly disembodied, pierce the 
text, drawing to the reader's attention the peculiar balance be- 
tween first- and third-person narration while, at the same time, 
signaling a possible here and now. It is a heavily coded novel, yet a 
novel that painfully articulates the female body, that perhaps even 
liberates it. 

The novel's major code is the superficial plot that gives an appar- 
ent, although highly deceptive, order of development to a number 
of recorded events. A central character is presented — Rennie 
Wilford, a free-lance journalist of only mediocre ability. The novel 
appears to be her story, a story told sometimes in the first person, 
sometimes in the third, a splitting of subject and object that is of 
considerable importance to the mystery of the novel. The story be- 
gins with Rennie's recounting of an attempted crime against her 
body. A man has entered her apartment and as a reminder of his 
visit has left a coil of rope on her bed. Like the game of Clue, the epi- 
sode establishes a series of similar patterns that are also based on 
clues. Not long after this episode, Rennie is offered a chance to do a 
story for Visor, a magazine directed toward male readers. She ac- 
cepts the assignment, flies to the Caribbean island where she is to 
do the travel piece and arrives at Sunset Inn, a place more omi- 
nously named than at first appears. For the next six days, she travels 
around the island, meeting people and becoming inadvertently in- 
volved in the island's current revolution. During the early morning 
of her seventh day on the island, and following a night of violent 
revolutionary outbreak, she is arrested. She then suffers, for about 
two weeks, in a poorly run Central American prison, from which 
she is finally rescued by a member of the Canadian diplomatic 
corps. She is put on a plane back to Canada where, as Audrey 
Thomas comments in a review of the novel, she has become, like 
the Ancient Mariner, "a sadder but wiser person" (pp. 9-12) . An ac- 
ceptable, upbeat, Harlequin plot: another story about a victimized 
woman who wins in the end. A deceptive story! 

Of course, we learn much more about Rennie than this plot 
summary suggests. Because she constantly reflects on the past, 
large segments of the novel present other stories, other lives. One 
such story is that of her relationship with Jake, a man with whom 
she has been living but who has moved out of the apartment 
shortly before the novel begins. Another story is that of her opera- 
tion, a partial mastectomy. Daniel, the doctor who performed the 



The Here and Now of BodWy Harm 87 

operation, figures dominantly in her fantasy life; as she suggests, 
he has been imprinted on her, the first face she saw when emerg- 
ing from the anaesthetic. Rennie also talks about her early life in 
the small town of Griswold, where she and her mother lived with 
her mother's parents. Memories of her grandmother flit in and 
out of her consciousness. As well, the stories of two other women 
are included, one told by Jocasta, a Toronto friend of Rennie's, 
and, on five sepa'rate occasions, those told by Lora, a woman 
whom Rennie meets on the island and who becomes her cell mate 
in the last section of the novel. Throughout, the present events 
and characters of the novel merge with those of the past. Thus, 
segments of alternating stories are condensed and displaced so 
that the operation, the grandmothers of the island, the sexually vi- 
olent men, the doctors, the brutal beating of Lora, all have the res- 
onance of recurrence rather than singularity. As a result, the 
texture of the novel is peculiarly dense. 

Certainly the themes and images of the superficial stories of 
Bodily Harm allow a coherent literary critique and satisfy contem- 
porary demands for extended analysis. The novel addresses itself 
to the nature of violence, to victimization, to women. The epi- 
graph from John Berger's Ways of Seeing focuses immediate atten- 
tion on these themes: "A man's presence suggests what he is 
capable of doing to you and for you. By contrast, a woman's pres- 
ence . . . defines what can and cannot be done to her." Newspaper 
articles describe "those women they were always finding strewn 
about ravines or scattered here and there" (p. 23); Jake gets sexu- 
ally excited by imagining intercourse as pretended rape; taxi driv- 
ers and policemen make constant sexual innuendos; a deaf and 
dumb man on the island seems on the verge of attacking Rennie; 
the Toronto policemen's pornography museum displays wom- 
en's bodies as maps of violence; on the island, men freely beat up 
their wives; attacked by the male guards in the prison, guards to 
whom she has been giving sexual favors in return for help, Lora is 
mutilated and possibly killed. Rennie's summary of the situation 
is inspired by her sexual involvement with Paul, whose boyish 
pride in his gun fills Rennie with terror: "She's afraid of men and 
it's simple. It's rational, she's afraid of men because men are 
frightening" (p. 290). 

The sexual battlefield with its various power plays is paralleled 
in certain nationalistic themes that appear from quite a different 



88 Loma Irvine 

perspective in the opening section of Survival, Atwood's early 
book of criticism. There, Atwood discusses the ways in which vic- 
timization seems to dominate the Canadian imagination and of- 
fers her thematic study as a "map of the territory" (p. i8). More 
important, she uses as a dominating question Northrop Frye's fre- 
quently quoted statement about Canadian literature, that the 
major question is "Where is here?" The opening sentence of Bod- 
ily Harm thus alerts the reader to the novel's interest in Canadian 
nationalism and to certain of its political intentions. The refrain, 
"the sweet Canadians," reiterated by the shrunken Fisher King, 
Dr. Minnow, means different things at different points in the 
novel. Sometimes, it implies the naivete of Canadians, a theme 
given physical representation through the character of Rennie, 
who, like the narrator of Surfacing, represents the country in 
which she lives. Like Canada, Rennie is perceived by many differ- 
ent characters as naive, as politically uncomplicated, as obscurely 
old-fashioned. Towards the end of the novel, Paul says about her: 
" 'For one thing you're nice. . . . You'd rather be something else, 
tough or sharp or something like that, but you're nice, you can't 
help it. Naive. But you think you have to prove you're not merely 
nice, so you get into things you shouldn't' " (p. 15). At another 
point, an old couple questions Rennie: " 'You're Canadian, aren't 
you? We always find the Canadians so nice, they're almost like 
members of the family. No crime rate to speak of. We always feel 
quite safe when we go up there' " (p. 186). In this respect, then, the 
novel ironically attacks Canadian simplicity by dramatizing the 
massive involvement of Rennie in the political affairs of a country 
she knows so little about. Far from keeping her safe, her naivete is 
responsible for her ultimate victimization. No one, not even the 
Canadians, can stay outside contemporary political violence or 
placidly castigate other countries for encouraging such violence. 
As Dr. Minnow says to Rennie: " 'Everyone is in politics here, my 
friend. ... All the time. Not like the sweet Canadians' " (p. 124) 
and, later, " 'There is no longer any place that is not of general in- 
terest. . . . The Sweet Canadians have not learned this yet' " (p. 
135). Furthermore, even Rennie, who at the beginning emphasizes 
her own neutrality ("she needs it for her work. . . . Invisibility" [p. 
15]) is embarrassed by the Canadian official with his safari jacket 
and attempted neutrality'. As she watches him following Dr. Min- 
now out of the room, she can think of him only as "the neutral- 



The Here and Now of Bodily Harm 89 

coloured Canadian" (p. 191). Strikingly enough, the text itself rep- 
resents the colors of the Canadian flag — red and white — by reite- 
rating them in all kinds of different combinations. 

Bodily Harm also self-consciously investigates the act of writing, 
even dramatizes the creative process. Because Rennie is a writer, the 
spatial and temporal ambiguity that permeates the novel evokes the 
actual space and time of the writing act. Small spaces and moments 
of time punctuate the novel like clockwork, suggesting the painful 
physical problems that accompany composition. Furthermore, at 
the beginning of the novel, masculine and feminine readers, and by 
extension writers, are contrasted. Rennie has been associated with 
the "Relationships" column of a magazine called Pandora, and allu- 
sions to Pandora's box (thinly disguised as Lora's box) keep con- 
stantly before the reader the implications of the myth. Her present 
employment is with the magazine Visor, a magazine whose reader- 
ship is predominantly male. As for the writer herself, she refuses to 
be taken seriously, insisting that she is merely interested in writing 
trendy articles. Her frivolity is, of course, misleading. Like every 
other stance in this novel, it is a defense. One of the poems from 
Atwood's True Stories, a collection published the same year as Bodily 
Harm, also emphasizes the shift that Rennie experiences, a shift 
from belief in a "real story" (Bodily Harm, p. 64) to a recognition of 
the unreliability of narrative: 

The true story lies 
among the other stories 



the true story is vicious 

and multiple and untrue. (p. 11) 

The themes that emerge from the stories of Bodily Harm — 
victimization of women, nationalism, writing — are certainly im- 
portant and can be related by readers and critics to all of Atwood's 
work and to that of many other writers. Yet, having said this 
much, I now insist that they do not, at least in their apparent 
form, explain this novel, do not clarify its geography and history, 
do not situate the italicized voice, do not account for the pecu- 
liarly evasive shifts of perspective, do not explain the emphasis on 
the unreliability of narrative, do not, finally, unmask the truly 
radical statement at the novel's core. In somewhat the same way as 
suggested by Frank Kermode in his analysis of Conrad's Under 



90 Lorna Irvine 

Western Eyes, "Secrets and Narrative Sequence," Bodily Harm is 
replete with secrets that pull against straightforward interpreta- 
tion and cloud the major themes. Rennie admits that "she no 
longer trusts surfaces" (p. 48) and announces that "almost no- 
body here is who they say they are at first" (p. 150). Her fear of the 
"faceless stranger" moves in and out of consciousness, sometimes 
associated with specific characters, for example Paul, at other 
times merely a focus for free-floating anxiety. Although Rennie's 
stories dominate the text, as the novel progresses, it becomes in- 
creasingly clear that her reading of events is erroneous. In some 
fundamental way, she is blind. She plays Clue poorly: "What has 
she done, she's not guilty, this is happening to her for no reason at 
all" (p. 286) . Thus, the reader has great difficulty in accumulating 
the clues that will lead to the discovery of the space, the victim, 
and the weapon of the crime. Even the crime itself is unclear. 

Most problematic is the time of the novel's action. Partly, as 
with many novels, this temporal ambiguity results from a reliance 
on recollection. In Bodily Harm, recollected stories interfere with 
the forward narrative movement and even break up the written 
page. Like the dismembered bodies referred to, the text itself 
seems repeatedly deconstructed. But the temporal ambiguity is 
not only a structural problem; it is also contextually important. 
Early in the novel, Rennie admits that she has "stopped thinking 
in years" (p. 11). Indeed, as the novel progresses, it seems likely 
that she has stopped thinking in terms of time at all. Unable to as- 
sume a future (" 'I'll tell you about it sometime,' he says, assum- 
ing the future; which is more than she can do" [p. 47]), near the 
end, she admits: "There's the past, the present, the future: none of 
them will do" (p. 282) . Time, always critical for the constructor of 
stories, disintegrates completely. The opening sentence with its 
apparently assured present tense is therefore merely a cover, a se- 
cret. The concluding "this is what will happen" (p. 293) that paral- 
lels the opening "this is how I got here" insists on temporal 
confusion right to the stopping of the novel by casting the narra- 
tive into the future tense. Indeed, even such narrative closure as is 
allowed by projected fantasy is questioned, for present, past, and 
future continue to cross through each other: "She will never be 
rescued. She has already been rescued" (p. 301). Time is like the 
time of dreams. In "Postcard," similar ambiguities exist: 



The Here and Now 0/ Bodily Harm 91 

Time comes in waves here, a sickness, one 

day after the other rolling on; 

I move up, it's called 

awake, then down into the uneasy 

nights, but never 

forward. (True Stories, p. 18) 

Vertical rather than horizontal movement perplexes the novel 
throughout. 

This last observation introduces the other principal ambiguity 
of Bodily Harm, its space. To repeat the question asked of Cana- 
dian literature by Frye and Atwood: "Where is here?"^ Certainly, 
the reader's attention to space is visually insisted on by repeated 
references to enclosed spaces that are being threatened or that re- 
flect damage. The small apartment bedroom that contains the 
first of the novel's stories has been violated, a violation that is em- 
phasized by Rennie's offering to show the investigating police- 
men her mastectomy scar. The enclosed cabin of the plane to the 
island is also connected with Rennie's damaged body for, as she 
enters, "she's afraid to look down, she's afraid she'll see blood, 
leakage, her stuffing coming out" (p. 22). Lying in her room in 
the Sunset Inn, her hands across her chest, Rennie listens to the 
sounds from the next room, an eavesdropping insisted on by spa- 
tial constriction. The neighboring couple's lovemaking eerily 
combines torture and sex, a sado-masochistic ritual that is empha- 
sized here by the disembodied, italicized ^'' Oh please," a cry re- 
peated in other places in the novel, an ambiguous fragment (Who 
is speaking? To whom? From what space? At what time?) that be- 
comes an important clue in the clarifying of the novel's locale. 
Other confined spaces — the cellar Rennie recalls being locked 
into by her grandmother, the basement apartment that Lora 
describes — condense into references to boxes (Pandora's, Lora's) 
and into statements such as Jake's, that women "should all be 
locked in cages" (p. 73).^ 

Furthermore, the fear of enclosure invokes a claustrophobia 
that reflects death. Asked by Rennie what he dreams about, Paul 
answers, "a hole in the ground" (p. 249). Dr. Minnow's coffin is 
yet another "box." The gravelike jail cell, five feet by seven feet, in 
which Lx)ra and Rennie are incarcerated also figures dominantly 
in the measurements of the novel. Here is a space from which the 
stories of the text often seem to emerge, a central space in the 



92 Loma Irvine 

novel. Such a space would help to account for the kind of story 
telling that occurs in Bodily Harm and also for the confusion of 
time: virtually unpunctuated days, one space, the creating of sto- 
ries the only protection against insanity. It would account, too, 
for the thematic centrality of physical brutality, dominantly the 
fear of rape, and would explain the insistence on the spatial meta- 
phors that connect enclosure and death. The ambiguous itali- 
cized words are given terrifying resonance if the reader answers 
the confusions and false leads of the novel by believing that Bodily 
Harm culminates with Rennie's physical crises, brought on by 
seeing a man (Paul? the Prince of Peace? the deaf and dumb man?) 
being tortured by the prison guards in the yard of the prison: "She 
has been turned inside out, there's no longer a here and a there. 
Rennie understands for the first time that this is not necessarily a 
place she will get out of, ever. She is not exempt. Nobody is ex- 
empt from anything" (p. 290). If the novel's spatial parameters 
are the prison cell and its temporal parameters the day of Lora's 
beating, Lora's dismemberment would become the dominant 
metaphor of the novel, and Rennie's inability to separate here and 
there, inside and outside would help to account for the way in 
which she reports Lora's beating. Furthermore, such a scenario 
also implies a combination for the textual Clue game: the guards 
in the prison with the penis/gun; the victim, Lora; or, in a possi- 
ble displacement, Rennie. 

Yet the disembodied voice of the novel, its splits, its mysteries, 
its secrecy, remains insistent. "This is how I got here." Is it possi- 
ble for there to be another space, another time, another story? 
Certainly, one other space figures dominantly in the stories of 
the novel — the hospital room where Rennie undergoes her oper- 
ation for breast cancer. So pervasive is this space in the themes 
and images of the novel that it gives considerable resonance to 
the ambiguous "here." It gives resonance also to the novel's 
time, and helps to account for the repeating of dreams, the recur- 
rence of the question, "What do you dream about," the dream- 
like organization. 

Rennie's stories seem, then, to imply a slipping in and out of 
consciousness that roughly corresponds to her experiences in the 
operating room. Even her dreams condense and displace anxieties 
about the operation. Her grandmother, a major actor in these 
dreams, looking for her hands, becomes a projection of Rennie 



The Here and Now 0/ Bodily Harm 93 

herself, a foremother who, like Rennic, suffers fears about dis- 
memberment. For example, in a dream occurring apparently at 
the Sunset Inn, Rennie dreams of gardens, of her mother (who 
"can't take care of everNthing" p. 115), of hummingbirds, and, 
most important, of her grandmother. As she struggles to wake 
from the dream, she describes herself in "a long white cotton 
gown," although she insists that she is not in a hospital. Like her 
grandmother, she. is looking for her hands. Again, she drifts into 
sleep, and again struggles into consciousness: "It's dawn; this 
time she's really awake, the mosquito netting hangs around her in 
the warm air like mist. She sees where she is, she's here, by herself, 
she's stranded in the future. She doesn't know how to get back" 
(p. 116). Such combinations of waking and sleeping, of dreaming 
and experiencing, of sensor)' condensation and displacement dis- 
guise absolutely both time and space. The anaesthetic, the mos- 
quito netting, and the mist illustrate Rennie's confused senses 
and clouded eyes. Furthermore, the sign system used implies vet 
another variation on the metaphoric game of Clue: the doctor in 
the hospital room with the knife, the victim Rennie. 

Like the "picture-puzzles" of Freud's dream texts in The Inter- 
pretation of Dreams, Bodily Hann thus creates perplexit\- bv dis- 
guising time and space and by representing the same thoughts in a 
number of different ways. Lost gardens and grandmothers, some- 
where in the past, mingle with an indecipherable present and fu- 
ture. Towards the end, space and time become increasingly 
ambiguous and the characters condense, split, and reform with 
ever greater frequency. Apparently in the jail ceil, Rennie allows 
her thoughts to wander wildly; she wants to end her stories. She 
thinks of Paul, then of the doctor, Daniel, of Daniel's hands, of 
"Daniel enclosed in a glass bubble" (p. 284), herself on the "out- 
side looking in" (p. 28+): "From here it's hard to believe that 
Daniel really exists" (p. 284) . But the real focus of her attention is, 
once again, her body, her "nibbled flesh"; she assures her reader- 
listener that "nothing has happened to her yet, nobodv has done 
amthing to her, she is unharmed. She may be dnng, true, but if so 
she's doing it slowly, relatively speaking. Other people are doing 
it faster: at night there are screams" (p. 284). I do not need to 
point out the ways in which this passage, like manv other passages 
in the novel, simultaneously evokes the hospital bed and the jail 
cell; nor do I need to emphasize the obsession with the body. The 



94 Lorna Irvine 

concluding comments in these thoughts about Daniel are so 
much like the dream of her grandmother as to seem like an insis- 
tent accumulation of clues: "Rennie opens her eyes. Nothing in 
here has changed. Directly above her, up on the high ceiling, some 
wasps are building a nest. . . . Pretend you're really here, she 
thinks. Now: what would you do?" (p. 284). Where is here? Obvi- 
ously, the passage does not answer that question. Yet, whether in 
a hospital bed or a jail cell, Rennie needs to distance herself from 
her body, to pretend. In these respects, she behaves like a writer. 
Such condensed images inevitably create a surrealistic, rather 
than a realistic, landscape. The hummingbirds in the dream of her 
grandmother, the wasps building their nest on the ceiling, the 
sounds of the air-conditioner in the hospital room (and the 
draughts from open windows that keep occurring in Rennie's 
dreams), the concluding ride in the airplane where "there's too 
much air conditioning, wind from outer space flowing in through 
the small nozzles" (p. 301) merge into one image — something 
cold and humming somewhere above Rennie's head. The cloth- 
ing of the various characters also blends together: the safari jacket 
worn by the Canadian government official looks like a doctor's 
uniform; the outfits of the stewardesses on the plane, pink satin 
with white aprons, and the blue and white uniforms of the wait- 
resses at the Sunset Inn are outfits similar to those worn by nurses. 
Whenever Rennie mentions her clothing, it is usually white, "a 
plain white cotton dress" (p. 59), a "white shirt and wrap skirt, 
also white" (p. 203). The bed she sleeps in with Paul has been "ex- 
pertly made, hospital corners tucked firmly in" (p. 203) . Recalling 
a dream she has had during her night with Paul, Rennie describes 
"another man in bed with them; something white, a stocking or a 
gauze bandage, wrapped around his head" (p. 217). The mosquito 
netting around her bed at the Sunset Inn blends with her descrip- 
tion of crawling through "the grey folds of netting" (p. 173) as she 
lies on the hospital bed and with the threatened suffocation she 
describes just before escaping to St. Antoine: "Rennie closes her 
eyes. Something with enormous weight comes down on them" 
(p. 259). Daniel's hands blend with those of her grandmother. Her 
fantasized leaving of the jail corresponds with a patient's leaving a 
hospital: "Rennie will be taken to a small room, painted apple 
green. On the wall there will be a calendar with a picture of a sun- 
set on it. There will be a desk with a phone and some papers on it" 



The Here and Now of Bodily Harm 95 

(p. 293). The recurring italicized words, ^^malijjnant,'" ''massive in- 
volvetnent" ''terminal,'''' and the italicized statement overheard at 
Dr. Minnow's funeral, "What did she die of? Cancer, praise the 
lord,^'' combine to give, in the disembodied voice of the novel, po- 
litical and bodily correspondence. Blood colors the text. 

Bodily Harm seems, therefore, a considerably more compli- 
cated text than at -first appeared. Although the story as told by 
Rennie superficially follows narrative logic and gives the reader a 
plot to hold on to, that plot is in fact profoundly ambiguous. Un- 
like the cover story, the submerged stories follow no specific chro- 
nology nor do they make clear their space. Yet, from the clues 
gathered and the dreams interpreted, a here and now do emerge: it 
seems possible that the novel presents Rennie's drugged reflec- 
tions in the hospital. 

But what does the reader gain by discovering that the ambigu- 
ous here and now of the novel are in fact its subject? Furthermore, 
what point is there in establishing the connection between jail cell 
and hospital bed.> The title helps our search for an answer. The 
novel is predominantly concerned with bodies, most notably, 
with Rennie's. It is also concerned with harm, the symbol of 
which, on the body, is the mark of castration. Can we therefore 
discover, on a woman's body, the marks that will allow us to read 
her story? For much of the novel, Rennie reveals herself to be a 
thoroughly manipulated writer, and repeatedly emphasizes that 
she is not writing. Nonetheless, that her body is to be imagined as 
potential material for inscription is abundantly clear. After 
Daniel operates on her, he says: "Think of your life as a clean page. 
You can write whatever you like on it" (p. 84) . Later, buying post- 
cards to send home, Rennie recalls this conversation with Daniel 
and reflects that "empty is not the same as clean" (p. 85). She also 
recalls herself complaining to Jake: "Sometimes I feel like a blank 
sheet of paper. . . . For you to doodle on" (p. 105). Rennie even es- 
tablishes a physical difference between phallic penetration and fe- 
male passivity when she wonders "what it was like to be able to 
throw yourself into another person, another body, a darkness like 
that. Women could not do it. Instead they had darkness thrown 
into them" (pp. 235-36). In many of the ways elucidated by 
Gilbert and Gubar, for Rennie the pen is phallic, the page the fe- 
male body.* 



96 Lorna Irvine 

The powerlessness of women's inscribing is certainly attacked 
by Helene Cixous in "The Laugh of the Medusa," when she insists 
that "woman must write her self: must write about women and 
bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away 
as violently as from their bodies — for the same reasons, by the 
same law, with the same fatal goal. Women must put herself into 
the text — as into the world and into history — by her own move- 
ment" (p. 875). And, later: "Here they are, returning, occurring 
over and again, because the unconscious is impregnable. They 
have wandered around in circles confined to the narrow room in 
which they've been given a deadly brainwashing" (p. 877, my ital- 
ics). Perhaps, then, Atwood's novel illustrates, ironically, inscrip- 
tion of the female body and, by connecting hospital room and jail 
cell, dramatically presents the injury to the female body that re- 
sults from its confinement. Similar bodily harm is described in an- 
other of the poems from True Stories: 

But power like this is not abstract, it's not concerned 

with politics and free will, it's beyond slogans 

and as for passion, this 

is its intricate denial. 

the knife that cuts lovers 

out of your flesh like tumours, 

leaving you breastless 

and without a name, 

flattened, bloodless, even your voice 

cauterized by too much pain. 

a flayed body untangled 

string by string and hung 

to the wall, an agonized banner 

displayed for the same reason 

flags are. (p. 51) 

The metaphoric relationship between the female body and the 
country, Canada, here, as in Bodily Harm, insists on the connec- 
tion of the politics of sexual power with the politics of colonial 
domination, for, like women, Canada is only now emerging from 
a "deadly brainwashing." Atwood seems to suggest that such a 
brainwashing has clearly interfered with both Canada's history 
and her literature. 

Up to a point, the novel therefore appears to be an intricate 



The Here and Now 0/ Bodily Harm 97 

analysis of female history (with underlying allusions to Canada), 
and a record of the dismembering of the female body. Inside and 
outside are radically confused. Rennie's divided consciousness, 
like the split space and time of the narrative, seems to represent 
both disrupted female history and a confused sense of self. Early 
in the novel, she imagines "herself from the outside, as if she were 
a moving target in someone else's binoculars" (p. 40). Both in- 
side and outside ai;e subjects in this novel; so too are the conflicts 
between appearance and actuality, stereotypes and realistic char- 
acters, woman's superficial exterior and the interior text of her 
self. Rennie struggles with repression. "Her real fear, irrational 
but a fear, is that the scar will come undone in the water, split 
open like a faulty zipper, and she will turn inside out" (p. 80). She 
is physically revolted by Lora's hand: "She doesn't like the sight of 
ravage, damage, the edge between inside and outside blurred like 
that" (p. 86). The operation thus seems a metaphor for a radical 
split in consciousness and for the repression that results: 

There's a line between being asleep and awake which Rennie is finding 
harder and harder to cross. Now she's up near the ceiling, in the corner 
of a white room, beside the air-conditioning unit, which is giving out a 
steady hum. She can see everything, clear and sharp, under glass, her 
body is down there on the table, covered in green cloth. There are fig- 
ures around her in masks, they're in the middle of a performance, an in- 
cision, but it's not skin-deep, it's the heart they're after, in there 
somewhere, squeezing away, a fist opening and closing around a ball of 
blood, (pp. 172-73) 

The separation between consciousness and the female body-text 
is here dramatically described. So too is the act of writing. Like all 
the other hands of the novel (Lx)ra's, the grandmother's, Daniel's, 
the deaf and dumb man's), the fist that opens and closes around 
"a ball of blood" seems a metaphor for painful inscription. 

Nonetheless, Bodily Harm is not, finally, a negative text. As the 
sign of the father is recognized ("she's afraid of men. . . . because 
men are frightening" [p. 290]), a new sign begins to emerge. For 
women, this sign seems to be that of the mother, the sign of crea- 
tivity, freedom, even flight. Thus, this novel also describes the 
joining of splits that have dominated texts by women. Rennie first 
imagines joining through positive sexual intercourse, an experi- 
ence that is paralleled with the separation experienced on the 
operating table: 



98 Lorna Irvine 

Nobody lives forever, who said you could? This much will have to do, this 
much is enough. She's open now, she's been opened, she's being drawn 
back down, she enters her body again, and there's a moment of pain, in- 
carnation, this may be only the body's desperation, a flareup, a last clutch 
at the world before the long slide into final illness and death; but mean- 
while she's solid after all, she's still here on the earth, she's grateful, he's 
touching her, she can still be touched, (p. 204) 

But it is not enough. Sexual joining does not give woman con- 
trol of the pen. Instead, Rennie has to go further; she has to give 
birth to herself. In a powerful doubling towards the end of the 
novel, Lora and Rennie become one: "She turns Lora over, her 
body is limp and thick, a dead weight. . . . She's holding Lora's left 
hand, between both of her own, perfectly still, nothing is moving, 
and yet she knows she is pulling on the hand as hard as she can, 
there's an invisible hole in the air, Lora is on the other side of it 
and she has to pull her through, she's gritting her teeth with the ef- 
fort" (pp. 298-99). A birth indeed! 

A three-part movement seems, then, to define the production 
of a female text: a recognition of the silence imposed on the cas- 
trated body by patriarchal rules; an illustration of the use the male 
pen has made of the female body as text; a final enlightenment 
that gives birth to an independent and complete female body. 
When this birth occurs, the female text is ready to be written. 
Only then, as Cixous suggests, can women "take pleasure in jum- 
bling the order of space, in dissolving it, in changing around the 
furniture, dislocating things and values, breaking them all up, 
emptying structures" (p. 887). Flying becomes "woman's 
gesture — flying in language and making it fly" (p. 887). When 
Rennie describes flight at the end of the novel, she stops being text 
and becomes writer. She can now inscribe herself. 

According to Marks and de Courtivron, French feminists 
"poke fun at the male erection, the male preoccupation with get- 
ting it up, keeping it up, and the ways in which the life and death 
of the penis are projected into other aspects of culture: in the need 
for immortality and posterity, in the fear of death, in the central- 
ized organization of political systems, in the impossibility of liv- 
ing in the here and now" (p. 36). To a considerable degree, 
Atwood's text does "poke fun" at the penis, although the humor 
is very black, and the knowledge of the depths of its de- 
structiveness is paramount. Throughout, the game of Clue im- 



The Here and Now of Bodily Hzrm 99 

plies a kind of conjunction between play and torture, between fun 
and terror. Yet Rennie can imagine extricating herself from its var- 
ious combinations, even from the one that most damages her own 
writing: man with the pen in the text, the victim the female body. 
She learns how to write herself and about herself. Furthermore, 
she learns to deal with the fear of death ("Zero is waiting some- 
where, whoever said there was life everlasting; so why feel grate- 
ful!* She doesn't have much time left, for anything. But neither 
does anyone else. She's paying attention, that's all" [p. 301]), to 
question "the centralized organization of political systems," to 
live in "the here and now." Luce Irigaray insists that woman's 
dominant pleasure is touching rather than seeing. Rennie learns 
the importance of touching: "she can feel the shape of a hand in 
hers, both of hers, there but not there, like the afterglow of a 
match that's gone out. It will always be there now" (p. 300). 

In Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction, Annis Pratt writes: 
"Since women are alienated from time and space, their plots take 
on cyclical, rather than linear, form and their houses and land- 
scapes surreal properties" (p. 11). Spatial and temporal alienation 
dominates much of Atwood's novel and its landscape, as Rennie 
herself emphasizes, is insistently surreal. Yet, at the same time, in 
this moving dramatization of the female body-text, the novel ar- 
rives somewhere. Although the time and the space of the novel are 
limited (a confined area, one day), by the end Rennie has become 
her own mother, has given birth to herself. Dismembered, frag- 
mented, victimized, the female body has regrouped, has become 
its own subject. No longer the blank page, it is prepared to write it- 
self, to report. Thus, in a fundamental way, the title. Bodily Harm, 
has been canceled, the sign of castration (the former sign of the fe- 
male sex) refused.^ Not surprisingly, Rennie "for the first time in 
her life . . . can't think of a title" (p. 301). She has discovered her- 
self through a new and subversive language. 



Notes 

I would like to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for 
the grant that made the writing of this paper possible. 

I. Page references in the text are to the following editions: Bodily 
Harm (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981); True Stories (Toronto: 
Oxford Univ. Press, 1981). Ashorterversionofthisessay was presented at 
the National Women's Studies Association Conference in 1983; a longer, 



loo Lorna Irvine 

slightly different version constitutes chapter 2 of Sub/Version, my study 
of Canadian women writers published in 1986. Since working through 
various of the themes in the novel, I have read Elaine Tuttle Hansen's 
"Fiction and (Post) Feminism in Atwood's Bodily Harm." As I do, 
Hansen pays close attention to the opening sentence of Bodily Harm, to 
the subversive feminist argument throughout, and to the connections be- 
tween politics and narrative. Hansen's emphasis on consciousness raising 
and on metaphors of healing foregrounds important elements in the text 
to which I have paid less attention. 

2. A number of titles reflect the importance of this question to Cana- 
dian literature, for example, Frank Davey's From There to Here: A Guide to 
English Canadian Literature Since 1960; John Moss's The Canadian 
Novel Here and Now; Sandra Djwa's "The Where of Here: Margaret 
Atwood and a Canadian Tradition." 

3. In The Wacousta Syndrome, Gaile McGregor argues that, at least 
from the evidence of their cultural artifacts, Canadians distrust transcen- 
dence. Her discussion of Jack Hodgins's The Invention of the World strik- 
ingly reflects what I have just said about Bodily Harm: "In Hodgins's 
fictional universe, for example, life is a closed system, a box, from 
which — as from the reception hall that stands as its symbolic correlative 
at the end of the novel — there is only one exit, under the aegis of the 
Horseman, death" (p. 82). Later, McGregor writes: "From one point of 
view the 'box' makes a mockery of human aspirations. From another, a 
demythicized landscape says that anything is possible — at least 'inside.' 
Canadian literature in the twentieth century has largely addressed itself 
to the task of negotiating if not often actually reconciling these two ex- 
tremes" (p. 90). 

4. The whole first section of The Madwoman in the Attic is introduced 
by the now famous question: "Is the pen a metaphorical penis.^" Also rele- 
vant is Susan Gubar's " 'The Blank Page' and the Issues of Female Crea- 
tivity," in Critical Inquiry. She writes that Dinesen's story "can be used to 
illustrate how women's image of herself as text and artifact has affected 
her attitudes toward her physicality and how these attitudes in turn shape 
the metaphors through which she imagines her creativity" (p. 247). 

5. In Communities of Women, Auerbach describes Monique Wittig's 
work symbolically as follows: "The apparent zero of the vulva, token of 
traditional and Freudian visions of female incompleteness, is transmuted 
by female art into the circle of eternity" (p. 186). 



8 Nature and Nurture 
in Dystopia 

The Handmaid's Tale 

Roberta Rubenstein 



I 

One might say that Margaret Atwood has always been con- 
cerned with issues of survival — first as a condition of Canadian 
experience and, more recently, as a condition of female experi- 
ence. In her latest fiction and poetry, she connects the personal 
and political dimensions of victimization and survival in explic- 
itly female and feminist terms. Moreover, in the course of her fic- 
tion the terms of survival have become increasingly problematic. 
In her fablelike The Handmaid's Tale, ^ she stunningly extends, re- 
casts, and inverts two of the most persistent clusters of theme and 
imagery that originate in her earlier concern with survival: nature 
and nurture. 

As a number of her commentators have pointed out, Atwood 
uses the imagery of nature in her poetry and fiction in complex 
ways, delineating the terms of survival and growth as well as op- 
pression and death. Concurrently, from the beginning of her fic- 
tional oeuvre in particular, nurture — I use the term here as ironic 
shorthand for motherhood and procreation — is viewed in proble- 
matic terms. In The Edible Woman, Marian MacAlpin's female 
friends dramatize extreme attitudes toward procreation as a "nat- 
ural" function of female identity: Ainsley is obsessed with becom- 
ing pregnant while Clara is virtually engulfed by maternity. 
Marian views both women with scepticism and anxiety. A central 
problem for the narrator of Surfacing is the necessity to come to 

lOI 



I02 Roberta Rubenstein 

terms with her denied abortion; the somewhat ambiguous sign of 
her psychological recovery is her desire to be impregnated by her 
primitive lover, Joe. 

Joan Foster of Lady Oracle also feels anxiety about mother- 
hood, principally because for much of her life (as revealed in her 
story) she has remained psychologically merged with her destruc- 
tive mother. Her childhood obesity and her adult fantasies of the 
sideshow "Fat Lady" are grotesque exaggerations of anxieties 
about maternity. In Life Before Man Elizabeth Schoenhof and 
Lesje Green represent complementary views of motherhood. 
Elizabeth has appreciative but rather remote relationships with 
her two daughters; Lesje, unmarried but perhaps pregnant (by 
Elizabeth's husband, Nate) by the end of the narrative, seeks ma- 
ternity to confirm her fragile female identity. Rennie Wilford of 
Bodily Harm worries that the cancer in her body, which has al- 
ready resulted in the loss of part of a breast, will fundamentally 
alter her reproductive capacity. 

In The Handmaid's Tale, female anxieties associated with fer- 
tility, procreation, and maternity are projected as feminist 
nightmare and cultural catastrophe. Atwood demonstrates the 
way in which the profound and irreconcilable split between 
"pro-life" and "pro-choice" ideologies of reproduction in con- 
temporary social experience corroborate female ambivalence 
about childbearing in patriarchy. She imagines a world in 
which women are explicitly defined by their potential fertility 
(or its absence); procreation and maternity are simultaneously 
idealized and dehumanized. 

Atwood has recently acknowledged her increasingly explicit 
ideological focus, noting that there is a vital connection between 
the function of the novel as a "moral instrument," the responsi- 
bility of the writer to "bear witness," and politics. As she elabo- 
rates, "By 'political' I mean having to do with power: who's got it, 
who wants it, how it operates; in a word, who's allowed to do 
what to whom, who gets what from whom, who gets away with it 
and how" ("An End to Audience?" Second Words, p. 353). In her 
most recent novel to date, the correspondences between "per- 
sonal" and "political" find brilliant and disturbing expression. 
Both public and private worlds are radically altered, exaggerating 
the unresolved cultural and ideological controversy over the cir- 
cumstances of procreation. 



Nature and Nurture in Dystopia 103 

In the Republic of Gilcad the "natural" world is utterly dena- 
tured. Pollution of the environment has resulted in adult sterility 
and genetic mutation and deformity of offspring; generativity it- 
self is at risk. Hence, fertile females are made vessels for procrea- 
tion; anatomy is indeed destiny. The physically confining rooms, 
walls, and other actual boundaries of the Republic of Gilead cor- 
roborate the condition of reproductive "confinement" to which 
the handmaids are.subject. Maternity is both wish (handmaids are 
discarded after three unsuccessful attempts at pregnancy) and fear 
(the baby, unless deformed and declared an "Unbaby," becomes 
the property' of the handmaid's Commander and his wife). The sur- 
rogate mother's function ceases after a brief lactation period fol- 
lowing delivery of a healthy child. 

The handmaid Offred (the narrator), subjected to sexual ex- 
ploitation masquerading as religious fervor and worship of pro- 
creation, experiences herself as utterly subordinated to the 
procreative function. In her former life she had regarded her body 
as an "instrument" under her own control — with "limits . . . but 
nevertheless lithe, single, solid, one with me" (p. 84). In Gilead, 
her body, like that of her coequal "handmaids," exists literally to 
be used against her: "Now the flesh rearranges itself differently. 
I'm a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a 
pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within 
its translucent wrapping. Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at 
night . . ." (p. 84). Under the pressure of terrifying alternatives, 
Offred (whose name encodes her indentured sexuality: both "of- 
fered" and the property "Of-Fred") "resign[s her] body freely, to 
the uses of others. They can do what they like with me. I am ab- 
ject" (p. 298) — and object. 



II 

From the central issue of procreation to the language and im- 
agery that form the substructure of Offred's narrative. The 
Handmaid's Tale demonstrates multiple inversions and viola- 
tions of nature and natural. Not only is the female body used as a 
tool for reproduction, but bodies in general are objectified and 
described in terms of parts rather than as wholes. In Bodily Harm 



I04 Roberta Rubenstein 

Atwood implied that the reduction of the body to a "thing" is 
connected to its violation; in The Handmaid's Tale torture and 
mutilation as well as less extreme forms of manipulation under- 
score the ruthless and repressive values that shape Gilead. Both 
men and women who are identified as political "enemies" of the 
state — guilty of such crimes as "gender treachery" (p. 53) — are 
sacrificed at public ceremonies called "Salvagings" (the word res- 
onates ironically with salva£fe, salvation, and sava£[in£[) in which 
they are mutilated and hanged in public view. 

Other images throughout the narrative reinforce the symbol- 
ism of disembodiment and dismemberment. When Offred tries 
to recall her visceral connections to the husband and daughter 
from whom she has been so abruptly separated, she mourns, "No- 
body dies from lack of sex. It's lack of love we die from. There's 
nobody here I can love. . . . Who knows where they are or what 
their names are now? They might as well be nowhere, as I am for 
them. I too am a missing person. . . . Can I be blamed for wanting 
a real body, to put my arms around? Without it I too am disem- 
bodied" (p. 113). Most obviously, Offred and other handmaids 
are, to those in power in Gilead, merely parts of bodies: "two- 
legged wombs" (p. 146). The doctor who examines them periodi- 
cally for signs of pregnancy never even sees their faces; he "deals 
with a torso only" (p. 70). The ceiling ornament in Offred's room 
resembles "the place in a face where the eye has been taken out" 
(p. 17); in fact, there are Eyes — the network of informants (C-Eye- 
A?) — everywhere. The grappling hooks on the large Berlin Wall- 
like structure where criminals are hanged look like "appliances for 
the armless" (p. 42). An image of people with "no legs" (p. 143) 
resonates with the unknown but terrible torture to which the 
rebel handmaid Moira is subjected (p. 102) and with Offred's first 
intimation of the changing dispensation that has culminated in 
the Republic of Gilead. When she and other women were fired 
from their jobs and summarily stripped of political and legal 
rights, she felt as if someone had "cut off [her] feet" (p. 188). In 
these latter instances of literal or symbolic mutilation of female 
feet, the image of Chinese footbinding — another form of social 
control of women — comes to mind. 

In Gilead, Aunt Lydia (one of the "Aunts," who retain power in 
the puritanical state through their role as indoctrinators of the 
handmaids) speaks distastefully of women in the recent past who 



Nature and Nurture in Dystopia 105 

cultivated suntans, "oiling themselves like roast meat on a spit . . ." 
(p. 65). In her former life, Offred had been aware of the self- 
mutilations practiced by women who, desperate to attract men, 
had "starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of sili- 
cone, had their noses cut off" (p. 231). She also recalls more violent 
crimes against the (implicitly female) body, as expressed in newspa- 
per stories of "corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to 
death or mutilated, interfered with as they used to say . . ." (p. 66). 
In Gilead the handmaids, as part of their "re-education" in submis- 
sion, are made to watch old pornographic films from the seventies 
and eighties in which women appear in various attitudes of submis- 
sion, brutalization, and grotesque mutilation. Extrapolating from 
these contemporary' realities, Atwood extends into the future her 
critique of female brutalization articulated in Bodily Harm and in 
recent essays. 

The imagery of mutilation and dismemberment permeates the 
narrator's own language. Offred struggles to "reconstruct" (p. 
144) her fragmented selfhood and to justify the choices she has 
made (or which have been imposed on her) under the circum- 
stances she describes. Her past experiences, apparently severed 
from the "present" time of Gileadean tyranny, are in fact linked by 
these very images of female brutalization. The terse words she ex- 
changes with other handmaids, who may or may not be trustwor- 
thy confidantes, are "amputated speech" (p. 211). Late in her story 
Offred apologizes to an unknown audience in whom she must be- 
lieve for her own survival; her story is an act of self-generation that 
opposes the oppressive obligations of procreation. She describes 
her narrative as if it were herself, "a body caught in crossfire or 
pulled apart by force . . . this sad and hungry and sordid, this limp- 
ing and mutilated story" (p. 279). 



Ill 

Among the multiple inversions of normalcy in The Handmaid's 
Tale are frequent references to animals, plants, smells, and other 
objects or experiences typically associated with "nature." In 
Gilead the changing seasons bring no solace; spring is "under- 
gone" (p. 160). The month of May, however, is linked with the 



io6 Roberta Rubenstein 

one possibility of freedom: the password of the resistance move- 
ment, "Mayday," with its coded message ofM^aidez" (p. 54). 

Flowers are among the few objects of the natural world whose 
symbolic associations have not been entirely corrupted. Offred 
frequently describes them in terms of color and variety and, late 
in her narrative, confesses that they are among the "good things" 
she has tried to put in her sordid story (p. 279). More often, flow- 
ers and plants suggest the confining circumstances of sexuality 
and reproduction. Offred struggles to keep the image of crimson 
tulips (also the color of the nunlike robes worn by the hand- 
maids) free from association with blood. The blossoms worn by 
Serena Joy (the ironic name of Offred's Commander's wife) are 
withered, like her sexuality; flowers are, Offred reminds herself, 
merely "the genital organs of plants" (p. 91). Elsewhere she de- 
scribes the reeking "stink" of "pollen thrown into the wind in 
handfuls, like oyster spawn into the sea. All this prodigal breed- 
ing" (p. 190) . Handmaids are told to think of themselves as seeds 
(p. 28); their password to each other is "Blessed be the fruit" (p. 
29) — yet seeds and fruit are associated with manipulated, not 
natural, reproduction. 

The narrative is studded with such references to plant and ani- 
mal life — generally primitive or lower forms — which are often 
juxtaposed with aspects of the human body and/or sexuality. The 
animals in Gilead are, for the most part, repugnant. A virtual me- 
nagerie of insects, fish, fowl, and beasts parades, figuratively, 
through the narrative: ant, beetle, spider, fly, worm, oyster, mol- 
lusk, rat, mouse, fish, frog, snake, pigeon, hawk, vulture, chicken, 
turkey, pig, sheep, horse, cat, dog, elephant. The handmaids are 
treated like brood livestock: tattooed with "cattle brands" (p. 
266), they are kept in line by women called Aunts who wield elec- 
tric cattleprods. 

The "livestock" of the narrative is partly of the zoo, partly of the 
barnyard — the latter figures recalling Orwell's satiric Animal 
Farm. Offred thinks of herself, in the eyes of the powers of Gilead, 
as a "prize pig" (p. 79); another handmaid takes mincing steps like 
a "trained pig" (p. 29). Both usages resonate ironically with the 
other-gendered "chauvinist pig[s]" (p. 131) and "fucking pigs" (p. 
190) of Offred's mother's generation. A number of the animal im- 
ages are associated with confinement: caged rats in mazes (pp. 79, 
174), "held birds" (p. 80) or birds with wings clipped or "stopped 



Nature and Nurture in Dystopia 107 

in flight" (pp. 289, 305), and the predatory relationship of spider 
to fly (p. 89). Handmaids are both sexual ''bait" and "baited," as 
in the sense of "fishbait" (p. 164) or "throwing peanuts at ele- 
phants" (p. 212). 

Often, the animal references suggest the debased, denatured, 
dismembered human body as mere flesh. Offred, walking after a 
rainy night on a path through the back lawn that suggests "a hair 
parting" (p. 27), observes half-dead worms, "flexible and pink, 
like lips" (p. 27). In the dehumanized sexual act (a menage a trois 
in the service of insemination: the Commander, his Wife, and the 
Handmaid), the penis is disembodied: the male "tentacle, his deli- 
cate stalked slug's eye, which extrudes, expands, winces, and 
shrivels back into himself when touched wrongly, grows big 
again, bulging a little at the tip, travelling forward as if along a 
leaf, into [the women], avid for vision" (p. 98). Elsewhere Offred 
imagines sexual encounters between "Angels" and their brides 
(insipid young men and women of Gilead who actually marry) as 
"furry encounters . . . cocks like three-week-old carrots, an- 
guished fumblings upon flesh cold and unresponding as 
uncooked fish" (p. 234). Similarly, she imagines a balding Com- 
mander with his wife and handmaid, "fertilizing away like mad, 
like a rutting salmon . . ." (p. 230). 

Thus, in the perverse relations of Gilead, the distinctions be- 
tween "natural" and "unnatural," between human and non- 
human, are grotesquely inverted or reduced. In a central passage 
Atwood suggestively links these levels of imagery and theme, 
clustering the ideas of institutionalized reproduction, environ- 
mental pollution, and the inversions between animal, vermin, 
and human that result from these perversions of normalcy. As 
Offred explains. 

The air got too full, once, of chemicals, rays, radiation, the water 
swarmed with toxic molecules, all of that takes years to clean up, and 
meanwhile they creep into your body, camp out in your fatty cells. Who 
knows, your very flesh may be polluted, dirty as an oily beach, sure death 
to shore birds and unborn babies. Maybe a vulture would die of eating 
you. Maybe you light up in the dark, like an old-fashioned watch. Death 
watch. That's a kind of beetle, it buries carrion. 

I can't think of myself, my body, sometimes, without seeing the skele- 
ton: how I must appear to an electron. A cradle of life made of bones; and 
within, hazards, warped proteins, bad crystal jagged as glass. Women 
took medicines, pills, men sprayed trees, cows ate grass, all that 



io8 Roberta Rubenstein 

souped-up piss flowed into the rivers. Not to mention the exploding 
atomic power plants, along the San Andreas fault, nobody's fault, during 
the earthquakes, and the mutant strain of syphilis no mould could touch. 
Some did it themselves, had themselves tied shut with catgut or scarred 
with chemicals, (p. 122) 

The chances of giving birth to a deformed infant are, the hand- 
maids learn during their indoctrination, one in four. Yet 
Gileadean ideology prohibits birth control and abortion under 
any circumstances as "unnatural" and obliges the handmaids to 
submit to "natural" childbirth without medication. The preg- 
nancy that culminates in birth during Offred's narrative is a mani- 
festation of this revolt by nature, the blurring of categories of 
living forms. Before the handmaid Janine delivers, Offred specu- 
lates on whether the baby will be normal or "an Unbaby, with a 
pinhead or a snout like a dog's, or two bodies, or a hole in its heart 
or no arms, or webbed hands and feet" (p. 122). In fact the baby in- 
itially seems normal, but is later discovered to be deformed and is 
mysteriously disposed of. Despite the obsessive focus on procrea- 
tion, actual children are notably absent from Giiead. The only 
child described in the narrative is the young daughter from whom 
Offred has been painfully separated. 

As part of the inversion of "natural" in the unnatural Republic 
of Giiead, Atwood demonstrates the assault on the senses as well 
as the body and the psyche. In keeping with the implicit barnyard 
references, Giiead stinks. The stench of rotting flesh from the 
corpses of executed political enemies — including doctors who 
practiced abortion — masks the equally humanmade but rela- 
tively less repugnant odors of "Pine and Floral" deodorizing 
sprays. As Offred phrases it, "people retain the taste" for these ar- 
tificial scents as the expression of "purity" (p. 174) — embodying 
the false connection between cleanliness and godliness. 

Conversely, uncleanliness is associated with sin and — since sex 
is evil in Giiead apart from procreation — sexuality. The ser\'ant 
Marthas express distaste toward the handmaids, objecting to their 
smell; the handmaids, to whom baths are permitted as a luxury 
rather than as a hygienic routine, are regarded as unclean not only 
in the literal but in the moral sense. ^ Nuns who are forced to re- 
nounce celibacy and become reproductive objects have "an odour 
of witch about them, something mysterious and exotic . . ." (p. 
232). When Offred first observes Nick, her Commander's chauf- 



Nature and Nurture in Dystopia 109 

feur who later becomes her lover, she wonders whether or not he 
supports the status quo arrangements between the sexes. As she 
expresses her doubts, "Smells fishy, they used to say; or, I smell a 
rat. Misfit as odour" (p. 28). Yet, instead, she thinks of "how he 
might smell. Not fish or decaying rat: tanned skin, moist in the 
sun, filmed with smoke. I sigh, inhaling" (p. 28). When Offred 
tries to (and tries not to) imagine what might have happened to 
her husband, Luk^, she thinks of him "surrounded by a smell, his 
own, the smell of a cooped-up animal in a dirty cage" (p. 115). 
Later the rebel handmaid Moira describes her contact with the un- 
derground resistance movement in similar terms. " 'I almost 
made it out. They got me up as far as Salem, then in a truck full of 
chickens into Maine. I almost puked from the smell' " (p. 259). 

The air of Gilead is stagnant, suffocating, oppressive: literally, 
the polluted atmosphere; symbolically, the claustrophobia and 
oppression experienced by its unwilling female captives. Offred 
describes the atmosphere of a "birthing" — a collective ceremony, 
attended by both handmaids and wives who coach the delivering 
handmaid — in language that reverberates with other images de- 
rived from animals and nature: "the smell is of our own flesh, an 
organic smell, sweat and a tinge of iron, from the blood on the 
sheet, and another smell, more animal, that's coming, it must be, 
from Janine: a smell of dens, of inhabited caves. . . . Smell of ma- 
trix" (p. 133). 

As the sense of smell is more typically assaulted by the unnat- 
ural, so is the sense of taste and the experience of hunger. Refer- 
ences to the smells of food also demonstrate the perverse 
connection — or disconnection — between sensor)^ stimuli and 
their objects. The odor of nail polish, improbably, stimulates 
Offred's appetite (p. 39). Recalling the sexual violation termed 
"date rape" in her former life, she remembers that the term 
sounded like "some kind of dessert. Date Rape" (p. 48). 

In fact, like sex in Gilead, food serves only functional, not emo- 
tional, appetites. In a parody of the Lx)rd's Prayer, Offred makes 
the connection between bread and spiritual sustenance, observ- 
ing, "I have enough daily bread. . . . The problem is getting it 
down without choking on it" (p. 204). The yeasty aroma of bak- 
ing bread, one of the few pleasant smells in Gilead, also recalls 
comfortable kitchens and "mothers": both Offred's own mother 
and herself as a mother. Accordingly, it is a "treacherous smell" 



no Roberta Rubenstein 

(p. 57) that she must resist in order not to be overwhelmed by loss. 
Later she provides another context for these ambiguous associa- 
tions as she recalls her childhood confusion about the extermina- 
tion of the Jews: "In ovens, my mother said; but there weren't any 
pictures of the ovens, so I got some confused notion that these 
deaths had taken place in kitchens. There is something especially 
terrifying to a child in that idea. Ovens mean cooking, and cook- 
ing comes before eating. I thought these people had been eaten. 
Which in a way I suppose they had been" (pp. 154-55)- 

Late in the narrative, Offred extends this link between eating 
and sacrifice. She describes another "Salvaging," the public execu- 
tion of handmaids accused of treason and sacrificed before break- 
fast; she and the other handmaids grip a rope that reeks of tar, the 
other end of which is used to hang the offending women. Offred's 
reaction to her compulsory complicity in the horrifying event dis- 
closes the extent of her emotional numbing and deprivation. The 
tar odor makes her feel sick; yet at the same time. 

Death makes me hungry. Maybe it's because I've been emptied; or maybe 
it's the body's way of seeing to it that I remain alive, continue to repeat its 
bedrock prayer: I am, I am. I am, still. 

I want to go to bed, make love, right now. 

I think of the word relish. 

I could eat a horse, (p. 293, Atwood's italics) 

Offred's hungers are both literal and symbolic. Earlier, she had 
been "ravenous for news" (p. 29). When her Commander, having 
sought her out for forbidden companionship, allows her the pro- 
scribed act of reading, she reads like a starving person finally given 
food — "voraciously, almost skimming, trying to get as much into 
my head as possible before the next long starvation. If it were eat- 
ing it would be the gluttony of the famished, if it were sex it would 
be a swift furtive stand-up in an alley somewhere" (p. 194)- The 
pieces in the Scrabble game she plays with her Commander re- 
mind her of candies: peppermint, lime, "delicious" (p. 149)- In 
Gilead, the act of intellectual intercourse is the equivalent of sin; 
as Offred puns, "Quick, eat those words" (p. 191). 

"Nature" is also invoked in Gilead as justification for male sexual 
dominance and female oppression. Offred's Commander advises 
her that the era of romantic courtship and marriages based on 
love — the older dispensation — was "an anomaly, historically 



Nature and Nurture in Dystopia iii 

speaking. . . . All we've done is return things to Nature's norm" (p. 
232). This "norm," however, leaves something to be desired for 
men who still prefer sex in the old manner, as conquest rather than 
duty. Those with power have access to a nightclub-brothel called 
Jezebel's. Resembling a Playboy Bunny Club, it is stocked with 
women in provocative costumes (primarily females "unassimi- 
lated" into other Gileadean roles) and private rooms for sexual as- 
signations. To Offred's assumption that such things are "strictly 
forbidden," the Commander rejoins, " 'but everyone's human, 
after all. . . . [Yjou can't cheat Nature. . . . Nature demands variety, 
for men. . . . [I]t's part of the procreational strategy. It's Nature's 
plan' " (pp. 248-49).^ Even at Jezebel's, the ubiquitous cattle- 
prod-wielding Aunts preside, supervising the women's "rest 
breaks" and reinforcing the sense of sexual slavery that prevails in 
Gilead. The "forbidden" is accommodated, but only to serve tradi- 
tional assumptions about male, not female, sexuality. 

Offred's dark story of female exploitation concludes with an 
ambiguous event. A van arrives for her and — like an experience 
described by one of Kafka's characters — she has no way of know- 
ing whether she is approaching her own "salvaging" or her salva- 
tion: whether she is being delivered into the hands of spies or 
rescuers. Entering the vehicle, she faces either her "end or a new 
beginning. ... I have given myself over into the hands of strang- 
ers, because it can't be helped" (p. 307). The ambiguity corrobo- 
rates the earlier conflations of death and birth: "And so I step up, 
into the darkness within; or else the light" (p. 307). 

In the narrative's ironic coda, "Historical Notes on The 
Handmaid's Tale," the reader discovers that Offred's story was 
originally spoken onto audio tapes, presumably after her escape 
from the Republic of Gilead. From the distant perspective of the 
year 2195, at the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies held in 
Nunavit ("None-Of-It" — presumably somewhere in the Arctic 
reaches of Canada), anthropologists and historians meet to de- 
bate the chronology and authenticity of events detailed in 
Offred's story. (One imagines Atwood wryly anticipating her 
commentators at the annual rites of MLA!) In this pseudo- 
pedantic coda, the imagery of nature that is so consistently in- 
verted in the handmaid's own narrative is briefly parodied. The 
conference facilitators bear names (presumably analogous to Ca- 



112 Roberta Rubenstein 

nadian Inuit) with associations with nature: Professors Maryann 
Crescent Moon and Johnny Running Dog. Program participants 
can avail themselves of special activities, including a fishing expe- 
dition and a Nature Walk (p. 311). 

From the more "objective" perspective of scholarly research, 
Professor Pieixoto, an archivist whose remarks comprise most of 
the coda, focuses less on the details of Offred's life than on the 
men who shaped it. Yet, as he concludes, "the past is a great dark- 
ness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what 
they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of 
which they come. . . ." (p. 324). 

Along with the professor's concessions to the limits of interpre- 
tation, his choice of words is particularly resonant, given the nar- 
rative that precedes his remarks. The "matrix" of Offred's 
experiences — with its linguistic associations with mother and 
matter — is the matrix out of which Atwood has written her 
dystopian fantasy of female oppression. If "nature" and "nur- 
ture" are the matrices out of which we come. The Handmaid's 
Tale, by inverting both, demonstrates the "broad outlines of the 
moment in histor\'" (p. 317) in which we live: the inhospitable en- 
vironment in which female identity must discover itself. Appro- 
priately, the narrative ends with the interrogative, " 'Are there any 
questions?' " (p. 324). 

Notes 

1. Atwood, 77?^ Handmaid's Tale (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 
1985). Page references in the text are to this edition. 

2. I am grateful to Annette Kolodny for pointing out the "literality" of 
this detail. 

3. In a brilliant and influential essay, "Is Female to Male as Nature Is to 
Culture," Ortner has traced the phenomenological linkages between "fe- 
male" and "nature" in terms that illuminate Atwood's narrative. Accord- 
ing to Ortner, women are perceived, in virtually all societies, as "closer" 
to nature. This proximity derives from physiological functions, domestic 
roles (including childrearing), and psychic makeup. The consequences of 
the cultural attribution of women as "intermediate" between culture and 
nature can be interpreted as "middle status" in a hierarchy, as "mediat- 
ing" between the two categories, or as ambiguous (both "above" and 
"below" culture). 



9 Future Tense 

Making History in 
The Handmaid's Tale 
Arnold E. Davidson 



Margaret Anvood in Tl)e Handmaid's Tale conjoins nvo differ- 
ent projected futures. The first, distinctly dystopian, is Gilead, a 
fundamentally tyrannical order the author envisions for the 
Northeastern United States. The handmaid Offred's secret ac- 
count (the women of Gilead are not even to have thoughts of their 
own, much less stories) gives us the measure of Gilead and partic- 
ularly emphasizes — as even Offred's name attests — its use and 
abuse of women. This same account gives us, too, Gilead's geneal- 
ogy, the stor\' of its rapid rise in the last years of the twentieth cen- 
tury'. Understandably alleviating her devastating assessment of 
her life in Gilead with memories of a different past, Offred records 
the traumatic transition from one order of things to a radically 
different order, all of which takes place within the limited span of 
her childbearing years. 

Or perhaps Gilead embodies not such a radicallv different order 
after all. In fact. The Handmaid's Tale portrays the advent of that 
society' as an easy slide into "final solutions" only slightlv less bru- 
tal than those attempted in Nazi Germany (but solutions given a 
thoroughly American habitation and name) and thereby fulfills 
the traditional function of the dystopia. By envisioning an appal- 
ling future already implicit in the contemporary' world, Atwood 
condemns just those present propensities that make a Gilead 
possible and does so on ever\' level, even the comic. There is 
something humorously appropriate, for example, when the 
Commander's wife, formerly a spokesperson for women in the 

"3 



114 Arnold E. Davidson 

Phyllis Schlafly mode, gets exactly the life that she earlier advo- 
cated for others and does not find it good. And there is something 
tragically wrong when others, such as Offred, who ask for little get 
so much less, not even the children they are forced to bear for the 
state (if they are lucky enough to conceive them, since, for hand- 
maids, the alternative to fertility is death). 

Yet Offred's perturbing narration does not comprise the whole 
of The Handmaid's Tale. Appended to the fifteen titled sections 
that constitute her account and the bulk of the novel is a final part 
not numbered as another section nor even designated as a sepa- 
rate chapter. These "Historical Notes" give us both a second fu- 
ture (a future to Gilead) and the genealogy of Offred's account, 
which up to that point we have been reading. The resultant dis- 
junction might well seem disconcerting. After an appalling story 
of tyranny, genocide, and gynocide in late twentieth-century 
America, we are, in effect, brought fast-forward to June 25, 2195, 
to the University of Denay in Nunavit and an International His- 
torical Association's rather placid (if pompous) intellectual foray 
back into the Gilead Regime. 

This unequal division of the text serves several narrative func- 
tions. On a most immediate level, the second part provides, as 
previously noted, the history of Offred's history and an account 
of how her private record has become a public document, the ob- 
ject of future historians' attention. That attention, moreover, 
supplements Offred's story by the very act of subjecting it to aca- 
demic scrutiny. Whereas Offred describes the practices of Gilead, 
the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean Studies can provide some 
of the theory that underlies those practices. Thus, we are given the 
analysis of the use of the "Aunts" as especially "cost-effective" or 
the observation that Gilead itself was partly the product of earlier 
theories such as the sociobiology of Wilfred Limpkin. A retro- 
spective symposium attests, too, that Gilead was survived and as 
such constitutes a distinct note of hope for the future. But that 
note is countered by another consideration. The historical notes, 
like any scholarly afterword, also serve to validate the text that 
they follow, and there is something ominous in that claiming of 
the right to have the last word. 

Retrospective analysis by a Cambridge don — male, of course 
— is ostensibly more authoritative than a participant woman's 
eyewitness account. Furthermore, the supposed "objectivity" of 



Future Tense 115 

the scholarly enterprise of the Twelfth Symposium on Gileadean 
Studies is a chilling postscript to a story in which women (and 
others too: blacks, Jews, homosexuals, Quakers, Baptists) have 
been totally objectified, rendered into objects by the State. Is the 
process beginning again? And implicit in that question is a more 
immediate one. Do we, as scholars, contribute to the dehumani- 
zations of society by our own critical work, especially when, as ac- 
cording to the distinguished professor of the novel, "our job is 
not to censure but to understand"?^ Atwood's epilogue loops 
back through the text that precedes it to suggest that the ways in 
which scholars (present as well as future) assemble the text of the 
past confirms the present and thereby helps to predict the future, 
even the horrific future endured by Offred. In short, Atwood does 
not let intellectuals off the hook — and the hook is a loaded meta- 
phor in The Handmaid's Tale. How we choose to construct history 
partly determines the history we are likely to get. 

Another version of this same problematics of history is implicit 
in the textual question posed by the epilogue. "The Handmaid's 
Tale" in its present form is not the only possible ordering of the 
"some thirty tapes" (we are never told exactly how many) that 
have been transcribed (we are never told how directly) into text. 
The editors, we are specifically informed, have intervened to make 
choices about the structure of the tale. Moreover, Professor 
Knotly Wade of Cambridge and Professor James Darcy Pieixoto, 
Director of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Archives at 
Cambridge, have ordered thirty or so tapes into an extremely in- 
tricate structure — forty-six untitled chapters arranged in fifteen 
labeled sections, with the heading "Night" used seven times (and 
the only heading repeated). Professor Pieixoto admits that "all 
such arrangements are based on some guesswork and are to be re- 
garded as approximate, pending further research" (p. 314). But 
that pro forma disclaimer does not acknowledge how much the 
very process of assembling a text (or writing the history of any age 
from its surviving traces) means creating a fiction. Where, then, is 
the boundary between novel and history? This textual question 
becomes all the more pertinent when juxtaposed against 
Atwood's insistence that everything in the book is "true," has, in 
some form in some society, already been done (Cathy N. 
Davidson, "A Feminist 1984,'" p. 24). 



ii6 Arnold E. Davidson 

In a very real sense, the future presaged by "The Handmaid's 
Tale" is already our history, just as the meeting of the Giieadean 
Symposium of 2195 could readily be incorporated into a contem- 
porary literature or history convention.^ The relentlessness of his- 
tory is partly what makes The Handmaid's Tale (like any success- 
ful dystopia) plausible. The plot of the novel also plays to our 
sense of the familiar. As Peter S. Prescott has observed, Atwood 
borrows the standard format of the dystopia (p. 70). First, the nar- 
rator experiences hopeless despair in the face of the brutal regime, 
then feels some hope through discovering the possibility of resis- 
tance (the Mayday Underground and the Underground 
Femaleroad) and begins to perceive cracks in what seemed to be 
the unassailable power of Gilead (the lapses of the Commander, 
Fred). This political hope is strengthened by personal hope in the 
form of a love affair, a testament to continuing human emotion in 
the face of the dehumanization of the regime. Finally, there is the 
possibility of escape. Within the tale itself, Offred's end is uncer- 
tain, yet the very existence of the tapes suggests that, aided by 
Nick, she did elude the rule of Gilead. 

Even the most idiosyncratic feature of this dystopia, its female 
narrator, is tellingly domesticated. Offred's reconstructed narra- 
tion embodies the same sexual dualities that Gilead exhibits in 
their starkest form. She is essentially passive and in need of rescue 
by a man, a gender cliche underscored by Professor Pieixoto's dis- 
tinction between the "quasi military" Mayday Underground as 
opposed to the nurturing and escapist enterprise of the Under- 
ground Femaleroad. This distinction (supported with remarkably 
little data, it must be emphasized) posits men aggressively striv- 
ing to destroy the regime and women merely reacting to it in a 
compassionate capacity. This distinction is further underscored 
by another of the professor's little jokes, his reduction of the Un- 
derground Femaleroad to "The Underground Frailroad." And of 
course, the whole title of the narration is appended by Professor 
Wade, "partly in homage to the great Geoffrey Chaucer" but also 
as an intentional pun on "the archaic vulgar signification of the 
word tair (p. 313). Yet it is those little jokes that give the larger 
game away. The grotesque transformation of women's bodies 
into passive receptacles for the perpetuation of the genes of the 
Regime's Commanders is itself grotesquely transmogrified, in the 
twenty-second century, into silly sexist jests. As Atwood has 



Future Tense 117 

noted to Cathy N. Davidson in an interview, this is "what happens 
to history — something that's a very intense experience for the 
people who are hving it becomes a subject of speculation, often of 
witticism, and rather detached analysis two hundred years 
later." 

The countering academic text is intended to condition future 
readings of the Gilead regime, just as Biblical commentaries (of 
any era or religion) condition readings of the Bible. Nor is that 
analogy gratuitous. Indeed, the Biblical fundamentalism of 
Gilead poses crucial questions about the interpretive use of liter- 
ary texts, for that society's most appalling practices all have their 
scriptural justification. Chapter and verse can be cited for every 
atrocity, but who privileges those particular chapters and verses 
and decides how they should be read? And more important, how 
does that right to textual authority itself write the larger text of 
the society? The novel presents us with versions of this process in 
the Gileadean reading of the Bible and the professional reading 
of Gilead: 

If I may be permitted an editorial aside, allow me to say that in my opin- 
ion we must be cautious about passing moral judgement upon the 
Gileadeans. Surely we have learned by now that such judgements are of 
necessity culture-specific. Also, Gileadean society was under a good deal 
of pressure, demographic and otherwise, and was subject to factors from 
which we ourselves are happily more free. Our job is not to censure but to 
understand, (pp. 314-15) 

Again an ostensibly marginal aside situates us right in the center 
of the professor's own moral judging and his society's "hypocriti- 
cal self-congratulation." The conferees at the Twelfth Sympo- 
sium on Gileadean Studies assent to Professor Pieixoto's remarks 
by a round of applause. 

One imagines that "The Handmaid's Tale" could provide the 
scholars of the rwent\'-second century with a crucial text from the 
Gilead regime. Very little remains of Gilead, for destroying 
information — obliterating marks of the past — was part of the 
many purges that marked this unstable society. We are told that, 
besides Offred's tapes, anthropologists have discovered "The A. 
B. Memoirs" in a garage in a Seattle suburb and "The Diary of P." 
"excavated by accident during the erection of a new meeting 
house in the vicinity of what was once Syracuse, New York" (p. 



ii8 Arnold E. Davidson 

313). Aside from offering us a tantalizing glimpse of what life 
might be like in the United States in 2195 — does the new meeting 
house recapitulate the town structure of an earlier Puritan or 
Quaker theocracy? — the very scantiness of the evidence under- 
scores how much history is the product of historians. The only 
other guide to the era is a "diary kept in cipher" by sociobiologist 
Wilfred Limpkin, a political insider whose theories of natural po- 
lygamy served as the "scientific justification for some of the odder 
practices of the regime, just as Darwinism was used by earlier ide- 
ologies" (p. 318).^ 

If social Darwinism supports rampant laissez-faire capitalism 
and sociobiology justifies the theocratic totalitarianism of Gilead, 
then, we must ask, what ideologies are supported by the seem- 
ingly innocuous exercise in literary histon^ indulged in by those at 
the Twelfth Symposium on Gilead Studies? The form of historical 
analysis assayed by Pieixoto is, essentially, a pre-Foucault, pre-de 
Beauvoir form of historical criticism, which pretends to "objectiv- 
ity," to placing texts within their historical "contexts" with little 
awareness that context itself is a construct. As Mary Wilson Car- 
penter has pointed out, Pieixoto continually trivializes the status 
of "The Handmaid's Tale" as document precisely because he tri- 
vializes women's role in society — in Gilead society, in his own so- 
ciety (p. 5). In fact, much of his narration is concerned not with 
the text itself but with attempting to discover the identity of Fred, 
the Commander to whom the narrator of "The Handmaid's 
Tale" is assigned. "What would we not give, now," Pieixoto la- 
ments, "for even twenty pages or so of printout from [the 
Commander's] private computer!" (p. 322). 

The professor's desire for what he has not and the concomitant 
disregard for all that he has (if he could only read it better) is fi- 
nally parodic. Other comic inversions also characterize the enter- 
prise of these future scholars. For example. Professor Gopal 
Chatterjee, of the Department of Western Philosophy, University 
of Baroda, India, is scheduled to speak on "Krishna and Kali Ele- 
ments in the State Religion in the Early Gilead Period." Or the ses- 
sion on "The Handmaid's Tale" is chaired by Professor Mar\'ann 
Crescent Moon, of the Department of Caucasian Anthropology, 
University of Denay, Nunavit. And even Denay, the future nation 
in the north that a number of native peoples in Canada currently 
wish to form — a nation in which the traditional ways of the na- 



Future Tense 119 

fives will replace the Western ways of their oppressors — 
embodies obvious contradictions. With most of the United States 
contaminated by radioactivity and other industrial and nuclear 
disasters, the far north has apparently become the seat of power in 
North America, and with power comes a society that mimes the 
very Western ways it was intended to oppose. Although the exis- 
tence of a Department of Caucasian Anthropology reverses the 
usual hierarchies — who is studied, who studies — there still are 
such hierarchies and the institutions that embody them. 

Maryann Crescent Moon's role as chair of the conference session 
on "The Handmaid's Tale" does not prove an egalitarian future. 
On the contrary, as soon as the keynote speaker ascends to the po- 
dium, we are shown the real distribution of textual and sexual 
power. The eminent Professor Pieixoto of Cambridge (another en- 
during hegemony despite his non-Anglo name) begins his talk with 
the standard speaker's ploy of breaking the ice with a joke. Yet his 
opening comment, ostensibly marginal to the topic at hand, effec- 
tively centers the professor's discourse, and from the very first he 
sounds his key note. A most dubious note it is. His joke turns upon 
a bad pun conjoining the "charming Arctic Char" that "we all en- 
joyed" last night at dinner and the current "Arctic Chair" that "we 
are [now] enjoying" (p. 312). Lest the full racist and sexist implica- 
tions of that equation go unappreciated, he also spells out the dif- 
ferent senses of "enjoy" and thereby elicits his audience's laughter. 
The chairwoman/charwoman thus assumes her marginal place as 
mere handmaiden to Pieixoto's central text. 

Pieixoto's discourse mirrors, then, the structure of the novel of 
which it is a part, and by that mirroring it also claims the part it 
would play. "The Handmaid's Tale" as text serves as handmaiden 
to the career-enhancing epilogue provided by the academics. Is 
this what history is for? To round out the vitae of historians? Or 
does the asserted marginalization of one text set forth itself still 
another text and a context in which to read it? We know — from 
both Offred's narration and Pieixoto's speech — that the Cauca- 
sian birthrate declined disastrously in Gilead, thanks to such fac- 
tors as radioactive fallout, chemical pollution, and a backfired 
plan for gene warfare against the Russians. Women who could 
bear children were therefore vital (literally) to the survival of the 
regime. But prospective mothers were nevertheless the most con- 
trolled, powerless, and demeaned members of that society. In 



I20 Arnold E. Davidson 

short, there is no necessary relationship between one's impor- 
tance to the perpetuation of society and one's privilege within 
that society. Significance and status are both constructs manipu- 
lated by those in power. Just as the conference chair in 2195 is pe- 
ripheral to the proceedings themselves, so is Offred merely a 
marginal (and ultimately disposable) tool of the patriarchy that 
cannot exist without her."* What Atwood has written is not just a 
history of patriarchy but a metahistory, an analysis of how patriar- 
chal imperatives are encoded within the various intellectual meth- 
ods we bring to bear on history. 

The historical notes with which The Handmaid's Tale ends pro- 
vide comic relief from the grotesque text of Gilead. Yet in crucial 
ways the epilogue is the most pessimistic part of the book. Even 
with the lesson Gilead readily at hand, the intellectuals of 2195 
seem to be preparing the way for Gilead again. In this projection 
of past, present, and future, the academic community is shown to 
have a role, not simply an "academic" role (passive, accommoda- 
ting) but an active one in recreating the values of the past — which 
is, Atwood suggests, the way to create the values of the future. 
Professor Pieixoto's title is "Problems of Authentication in Refer- 
ence to The Handmaid's Tale,'''' and his very mode of speaking au- 
thenticates her tale by retrospectively duplicating the suppression 
her society inflicted upon her, by claiming the right to determine 
the meaning of her experience. But because his reading of her ex- 
perience verges back towards Gilead again, our reading of his 
reading can authenticate Offred's account in a different sense 
than the professor intended and can also show how insidious are 
the horrors at the heart of his dark narrative. 

The professor, too, concludes with mixed metaphors of light 
and dark: "As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and 
filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say 
to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they 
come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them pre- 
cisely in the clearer light of our own day" (p. 324). It is a brief pero- 
ration that elicits his audience's applause and prepares the way for 
any discussion that might follow. Indeed, when he ends, with 
again a standard ploy — "Are there any questions?" (p. 324) — that 
question itself well may be rhetorical. And even if it is not, the 
speaker has already indicated what he thinks the questions are. 
His questions, however, need not be our questions, especially 



Future Tense 121 

when we consider the matrix out of which his asking comes. His 
persistent assertion of gender prerogatives darkens his claimed 
"clearer light of [his] own day" and conjoins his world with 
Gilead's and ours. 



Notes 

1. Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 
1985), p. 315. Page references in the text are to this edition. 

2. An old-fashioned "historical" critic searching for the "sources" of 
the novel might find a particularly germane item in Atwood's attending 
the 1984 Modern Language Association Convention, which, inciden- 
tally, included a special session on Atwood. 

3. Annette Kolodny has pointed out (in private correspondence) that 
Wilfred Limpkin well might be based on Harvard sociobiologist F. O. 
Wilson, which would, of course, help to further ground Gilead in what 
was once Cambridge, Massachusetts. Obviously more is at stake than a 
Puritan past. 

4. And of the historian, too, it might be added. As Offred at one point 
in her narration observes: "From the point of view of future history . . . 
we'll be invisible" (p. 24). Professor Pieixoto hardly refutes that claim. 



lo Weavinpj Her Version 

The Homeric Model and Gender 
Politics in Selected Poems 
David Buchbinder 



Margaret Atwood's Selected Poems^ offers the reader an over- 
view of her work from 1966 {The Circle Game) to 1974 {Tou Are 
Happy). Such a collection is useful from several points of view, 
not the least of which are the opportunities to observ-e develop- 
ment in the poet's skill and technical accomplishment, and to 
trace her thematic preoccupations. These sorts of studies have 
been undertaken elsewhere (in, for example, Linda W. Wagner, 
"The Making of Selected Poems, the Process of Surfacing," and 
Sherrill E. Grace, "The Poetics of Duplicity"). What has not 
been demonstrated has been the way that thematic preoccupa- 
tions such as Atwood's concern with gender politics also allow 
Selected Poems to be read as a unified text, independent of chron- 
ologies of composition. In this essay I propose to examine how 
the presence of a number of classical allusions unifies Selected 
Poems, bestowing upon the selection a continuity not usually as- 
sumed of such compilations. 

Particularly, I wish to single out the intertextual references to 
Homer's Odyssey, as well as to the related mnhs from sources 
other than Homer. (I will call this group the Homeric model.) 
"Circe/Mud Poems" (pp. 201-23) form one such reference, as do 
the associated "Songs of the Transformed" (pp. 188-200), which 
includes a "Siren Song" (pp. 195-96). I shall argue that reading 
Atwood against Homer in this way uncovers a central unity of her 
poetry and invites the decoding of the poems as part of an 
intertexual as well as an intratextual discourse concerned with the 



122 



Wearing Her Version 123 

nature of gender roles in the moves and countermoves of sexual 
politics. Such a readingestablishes both gender-political and liter- 
ary antecedents for Atwood's work, and enables us to see how 
Atwood uses the Homeric model to resolve the problems gener- 
ated in her poetry by the dynamic of gender politics with which 
she is concerned. 



The presence of a specifically Homeric model in the latter part 
of Selected Poems need not be defined as a late development in the 
chronology of Atwood's work. Rather, we can say that Atwood's 
choice of poems presupposes, at least from the reader's point of 
view, that this model is also to be found or at least foreshadowed 
in the earlier part of the collection. Support for this kind of read- 
ing is to be found in the discoveries made in polysystem theory 
with regard to the dynamics of literary evolution. In his article 
"Polysystem Theory," Itamar Even-Zohar develops a thesis con- 
cerning the nature of semiotic elements and systems in a culture, 
and their dynamic interrelationships. A key notion in this theory 
is the idea of the model, which Even-Zohar defines as "a poten- 
tial combination selected from a given repertory upon which 
'proper textual relations' (order, concatenation and positions 
[matrix] . . . ) have already been imposed . . ." (pp. 304-5). This 
definition of the model proves fruitful when applied to the indi- 
vidual text.^ 

To argue that The Odyssey provides a model for Selected Poems in 
this sense does not therefore imply that Homer's text has been im- 
itated slavishly in terms of either its narrative or its poetic struc- 
ture. Rather, it means that Homer's poem contains certain 
features that, abstracted from the Homeric text, may become 
available to other writers and other poems as a model. This has 
several important implications, for The Odyssey and Selected Poems 
belong to different cultures and hence to different polysystems. 
The use of the Homeric model transfers to Atwood's poetry a 
number of relevant or desired properties or features (Even-Zohar, 
"Polysystem Theory," pp. 302-3). These include particular tradi- 
tional or conventional stances of the woman in gender politics, as 
defined in Homer's poem. 



124 David Buchbinder 

The transferred features make up a set of relations whose con- 
stellations we may call "Circe," "Siren," and "Penelope," and 
which represent in the Homeric model three kinds of female role. 
The last constellation remains unnamed in Atwood's poetry, al- 
though its identity is indirectly alluded to in a number of poems 
(see, for example, "When you look at nothing" [p. 218]; or "At 
first I was given centuries" [pp. 154-55]). Finally, included by im- 
plication in the Homeric model constituted in Selected Poems is 
Odysseus, who stands for a male addressee of the relevant poems 
and is the male Other who helps to define the female roles in the 
poems. 

The polysystems implied by Homer's Odyssey and Atwood's Se- 
lected Poems act as two loosely, though hierarchically, connected 
sets of relations and functions, each set having a particular value 
for the other. ^ In this way, the Homeric polysystem provides 
through the model abstracted in Selected Poems a structure of atti- 
tudes, values, and practices that may at times function as opposi- 
tional to the contemporary polysystem or, at other times, as 
analogous with it. 

Homer's poem thus may be seen to contain a discourse on sex- 
ual politics that Atwood's poems systematically foreground. 
Modern readers are likely to perceive in the structures of The Od- 
yssey principally an underwriting of the ideologies of male su- 
premacy and of patriarchal values. Nonetheless, some investiga- 
tion and explanation is needed to explain the facts that 
Odysseus's departure from and return to Ithaca are conditioned 
by the presence and action of two female figures (Helen and 
Penelope); that his return journey begins only at the instigation of 
another female figure (Athene); and that he is propelled or im- 
peded by an array of yet other female characters. Whether one ar- 
gues that the text somehow contains relics of a matriarchal social 
order far older than Homer's patriarchal culture, or finds another 
way of accounting for these literary fact in The Odyssey, the point 
is that the text reflects a polysystemic discourse on gender and 
that this discourse is made available to other texts. Of special sig- 
nificance to Atwood is the suggestive ambiguity in the Homeric 
model of female figures who are simultaneously subordinate to 
male ones, yet powerful. 



Weaving Her Version 1 25 

II 

In order to understand how the Homeric model operates in Se- 
lected Poems, we should first briefly consider The Odyssey as it re- 
lates to Atwood's poetry. Odysseus's departure from and return 
to Ithaca are conditioned by the infidelity of Helen of Sparta on 
the one hand and on the other by the fidelity and patience of his 
wife Penelope. Between these poles of female fidelity other female 
figures range themselves paradigmatically as positive or negative 
mediators, helpers or hinderers, creators or destroyers. The most 
interesting of these is Circe, whose function in the poem is ambig- 
uous: an enchantress (creator) whose powers are dangerous (that 
is, potentially destructive) to mortals, she also aids Odysseus 
(after the failure of her attempt to transform him [Homer, pp. 
175-76]). She occupies, therefore, a position intermediate be- 
tween the two poles and shares qualities of each. 

The three female figures that concern us in Homer's poem each 
represent a threat or an insecurity to Odysseus: Circe's role as an 
enchantress is ambivalent, as is her role as Odysseus's lover, which 
is in effect forced upon her; the Siren (there are only two in 
Homer's poem, but other myths tell of three, and it is as a member 
of a "trio" that Atwood's Siren speaks) is a clear threat to the un- 
wary; and Penelope, dubious about Odysseus's identity, seeks to 
prove it in a test that causes Odysseus to doubt his wife's fidelity 
and trustworthiness. 

In Selected Poems the members of this triad are rearranged in a 
particular configuration, so that certain qualities of each of these 
figures are seen in relationship to each other. Those qualities in- 
clude sexual attraction and attractiveness, accessibility, betrayal, 
bitterness, suspicion, revenge, and so on — the various aspects of 
human emotional and sexual relationships condensed into partic- 
ular roles. These roles may be described as the positions of the vic- 
tim, the victimizer, and the victor. The first two, victim and 
victimizer, are in Atwood passive positions by which the female 
subject is locked into an unchanging and unchangeable role; the 
position of victor is by contrast an active one, permitting change, 
renewal, or termination of the role. These correspond in Selected 
Poems roughly to the identities of Circe, the Siren, and (the im- 
plicit) Penelope respectively. I wish, though, to emphasize that 
these are only approximate correspondences, because Atwood's 



126 David Buchbinder 

poems often construct their female subjects dynamically in at 
least two of these positions. 

Circe functions as a victim because in the negotiations of emo- 
tions and relationships in "Circe/Mud Poems" she knows that 
she will be abandoned by Atwood's Odysseus (see, for example, 
the prose poem "It's the story that counts" [p. 221]); however, the 
intertext informs us that she is also a victimizer — she enchants 
unwary travelers. The Siren, too, is an obvious victimizer in the 
intertext, but, as we shall see in Atwood's poem, she is also a vic- 
tim of her own function and mode of existence. Finally, Penelope 
in The Odyssey is both victim and victor: abandoned (like Circe, in 
Atwood's poems) by Odysseus, she finally both regains her hus- 
band and retains her position in Ithaca (defined as both sexual 
and political: to become Penelope's husband is to become 
Ithaca's king). Indeed, in Selected Poems Penelope is constructed 
chiefly as a victor, though her victories, however persuasive, are al- 
ways temporary and subject to renegotiation. 

Circe, the Siren, and Penelope are all literally isolated, Circe on 
Aiaia, the Siren on an unnamed island, and Penelope on Ithaca. 
This isolation implies limitation, yet all three figures possess the 
power to attract and affect males: Circe and the Siren exert a bale- 
ful or at least ambiguous allure, while Penelope, apparently wid- 
owed, both attracts suitors and acts as a sort of homing beacon for 
Odysseus, and thus indirectly brings about the destruction of the 
suitors. In Selected Poems, however, only those poems centered on 
Circe and the Siren foreground the fact of the island habitation 
and thus of the spiritual or emotional isolation, as well as the im- 
plied primitive existence. The Siren does not "enjoy it here / 
squatting on this island" (p. 194), while the prologue poem to 
"Circe/Mud Poems" specifies the arrival of Odysseus "ow the dry 
shore'''' (p. 201; Atwood's italics); another (prose) poem describes 
Circe's context as "this island with its complement of scrubby 
trees, picturesque bedrock, ample weather and sunsets, lavish 
white sand beaches and so on" (p. 207). By contrast, although the 
poems associated with Penelope remain indeterminate with re- 
gard to geographical settings, their speakers and addressees are ev- 
idently envisioned as continentally enclosed, and sheltered by 
culture — the settings, whether implicitly as explicitly, include a 
lake ("Four Auguries" [pp. 230-31]), bedrooms ("Head Against 
White" [pp. 232-35]; "Late August" [p. 237]), a kitchen ("There Is 



Weavin0 Her Version 127 

Only One of Everything" [p. 236J), and a living-room ("Book of 
Ancestors" [pp. 238-40]). The relative familiarity and the domes- 
ticity of her physical location differentiate Penelope's role from 
those of the isolated and deprived Siren and Circe. 

The geographical stasis in which Circe and the Siren are held 
are complemented by the temporal loops that also imprison 
them. In Homer's narrative we learn about these characters dur- 
ing Odysseus's re/citation at the court of Alcinous, after he has es- 
caped Calypso, encountered Circe, and avoided the treachery of 
the Sirens, but before he undertakes the fmal stage of his voyage 
home to Ithaca and to Penelope. Circe and the Sirens are thus a 
past tense of the Homeric narrative, Penelope a future tense. In 
Selected Poems, these three figures are also placed in a particular 
temporal matrix. Circe, who knows the Homeric intertext, is 
caught up in a temporal loop that causes the known past to be- 
come the predictable future: "Don't evade, don't pretend you 
won't leave after all: you leave in the story and the story is ruth- 
less" (p. 221). Thus the rhetoric of "Circe/Mud Poems" is essen- 
tially oriented toward a known and recurring past, which gives a 
particular value and meaning to the present and future tenses of 
this group of poems. Similarly, the Siren knows what the out- 
come of her song will be because it always has the same outcome. 
She is caught in a different temporal loop in which the future is 
always transformed into the past, for the result of her cry for help 
is always the same. In this way, the present tense of "Siren Song," 
as of "Circe/Mud Poems," is effaced. By contrast, the poems as- 
sociated (implicitly) with Penelope — the closing poems of 
Selected Poems, from "Is/Not" to "Book of Ancestors" (pp. 
224-40) — take place in a present whose provisional nature is 
stressed. Penelope's situation needs constantly to be redefined 
and reaffirmed. 



Ill 

The Siren and Circe, each at once victim and victimizer, remain 
trapped within the predicament created in the articulation of their 
positions. Each tries somehow to control reality, particularly in 
relation to an implicit Odysseus, by shaping that reality through 
language. Each then must confront the intractability of reality. 



128 David Buchbinder 

registered by a doubling of the signified, which then becomes self- 
contradictory. The ambiguity that results perpetuates the roles of 
victim and victimizer. 

Analogies between Circe and the Siren are to be found in the 
Homeric model, analogies that are put to interesting use in Se- 
lected Poems. Both women are, to varying degrees, monstrous fe- 
males: the Siren, a destroyer and, according to some versions of 
the myth, a devourer of males; Circe, a deceiver and transformer 
of males. According to classical mythology, the Siren is part 
human, part bird (Graves, vol. 2, p. 249) and is endowed with an 
alluring voice by means of which she entices the sailor to his 
death. The apparent signified of the Siren's utterance is thus not 
its real signified: her invitation is in fact an act of aggression, lead- 
ing to her victim's death. 

This duplicity — a trap which consists of the doubling of the 
signified — is put to interesting use in Selected Poems, and can be 
seen at work in "Siren Song." To the Homeric myth of the Siren, 
Atwood adds the notion of the loneliness of the Siren: 

I don't enjoy it here 

squatting on this island 

looking picturesque and mythical 

with these two feathery maniacs, 

I don't enjoy singing 

this trio, fatal and valuable 



This song 
is a cry for help: Help me! (pp. 195-96) 

That the expression of this loneliness is part of the alluring verbal 
(as well as musical) trap of the Siren does not in the least invali- 
date it as an actual condition of existence. It is the same cry as 
voiced, for example, by the speaker of The Journals of Susanna 
Moodie, where the loneliness is defined as constituted not merely 
by location or number of inhabitants, but by language itself: 

I am a word 

in a foreign language. ("Disembarking at Quebec," p. 80) 



Weavinpi Her Version 129 

. . . this area where my damaged 
knowing of the language means 
prediction is forever impossible ("First Neighbours," p. 83) 

The radical disjunction between what is said and what is (the 
Siren's trap) produces a radical disjunction within the self: 

... I felt I ought to love 
this country. 

I said I loved it 
and my mind saw double. 

I began to forget myself 

in the middle 

of sentences. Events 

were split apart ("Thoughts from Underground," p. in) 

The severed relation between event and word leads to a modification 
of the relation between signified and signifier. As with the mecha- 
nism of the Siren's trap, the subject is caught in her attempt to shape 
fact through language by language itself 

Like Susanna Moodie, the Siren too finds that events are split 
apart: she is no longer an integral member of "this trio." She de- 
sires rescue and articulates that desire, her song expressing frustra- 
tion, loneliness, and hope; but that same song is, of course, also a 
trap for her victim. In this kind of text, desire and the trap are mu- 
tually implicit. The reader is constructed as an Odysseus, the male 
Other included implicitly in the Homeric model, who then be- 
comes the victim of the poem, led by the verbal texture first to one 
seemingly innocent signification, and then, too late, realizing 
that it conceals another, inimical and dangerous: 

I will tell the secret to you, 
to you, only to you. 
Come closer. This song 

is a cry for help: Help me! 
Only you, only you can, 
you are unique 

at last. Alas 

it is a boring song ' 

but it works every time. (p. 196) 

The irony of this verbal strategy is multiple: it includes not only 
the entrapment of readers as they learn of the very mechanism of 



I30 David Buchbinder 

the Siren's verbal duplicity at all levels but also the entrapment of 
the Siren herself, whose utterances, whether or not intended to 
draw victims, must always create such a victim. The Siren's verbal 
duplicity, unlike Susanna Moodie's, thus makes prediction for- 
ever possible because the future event she creates through lan- 
guage is always identical with her past experience. The whole 
notion of prediction is thus rendered absurd. 

The Siren, as a particular female role, shows that in the politics 
of gender the victimizer's victim is, finally, the self. Each appar- 
ent success of her alluring verbal trap is a confirmation of the 
Siren's essential isolation. She is defined by her function as victi- 
mizer; her verbal ambiguities, intended to disguise that func- 
tion, or to express dissatisfaction with it, serve merely to 
reinforce it. 

A similar irony of predictability characterizes the Circe of 5^- 
lected Poems. Like the Siren, she is a double-dealer in words, yet in 
the Homeric model her business is with truth — its exposure, in 
her capacity as a seeress, as well as its concealment or reworking, 
in her role as sorceress. Like the Siren, Circe has a "beguiling 
voice" by means of which she both attracts her victims and com- 
mands their metamorphosis (Homer, pp. 171, 175). Circe can thus 
be understood as a transform of the Siren, in Atwood as well as in 
Homer. 

If the Siren ironically employs the process of signification in 
language as a blind and a trap, Circe uses it both to expose the 
truth of ''''what there is'''' (p. 201; Atwood's italics) and to try to 
transform that truth, unacceptable to her, into a different one. 
The transformations of Circe's victims and their deaths come 
about through language, through its double power either to name 
or to refuse to name: 

I did not add the shaggy 
rugs, the tusked masks, 
they happened 

I did not say anything, I sat 

and watched, they happened 

because I did not say anything. (p. 203) 

To Circe's concern with her fate ("Is this what you would like me 
to be, this mud woman?" [p. 214]), the Odysseus-addressee dis- 



Weavin£i Her Version 131 

plays indifference. As in the Siren's role of victimizer, this is a defi- 
nition of Circe's role (as victim) in terms of the male one: '"In the 
story the boat disappears one day over the horizon, just disap- 
pears, and it doesn't say what happens then. On the island, that 
is. . . . Don't evade, don't pretend you won't leave after all: you 
leave in the story and the story is ruthless" (p. 221). 

Circe's fate is determined by other words, another text — that of 
Homer's poem. 

There are two islands 

at least, they do not exclude each other 

On the first I am ri£[ht 

the events run themselves through 

almost without us 



it is over, 
I am ri£[ht, it starts a£[ain. ... (p. 222; Atwood's italics) 

This first island is that of the intertext. Homer's prior poem, 
which predetermines the actions and moves performed by Circe 
and Odysseus. It repeats itself ("/> starts a^ain, /jerkier this time 
and faster^'') like a movie on a faulty projector, or like a silent 
movie in which the actors are rendered absurd by repetition and 
the jerkiness and speed by which their actions are accomplished 
(compare "You take my hand" [p. 142], in which the relationship 
also "goes on and on" like "a bad movie"). 

In the first world created — or rather re-created — by Circe's 
words, experience is repetitive, and through repetition both im- 
mortal and predictable. 

The second I know nothing about 

because it has never happened: 

this land is not finished, 

this body is not reversible. . . . (pp. 222-23; Atwood's italics) 

This second world has an open structure, and is the world of love 
desired by Circe, as opposed to the eternal world of narrative al- 
ready known to her. Experience in this second world is unique 
and therefore mortal. "Circe/Mud Poems" thus concludes by 
facing simultaneously in two directions: towards an intertext that 



1 3 2 David Buchbinder 

determines events and gender relations in the present text, and to- 
wards a desired ideal text that would permit redefinition of situa- 
tion and gender relations. The latter, however, is impossible, 
since Circe is a literary construct derived from an intertext. She is 
thus committed to an existence that defines her in only one way, 
despite her own desires and intentions. 

Circe's trademark, the principle of transformation or metamor- 
phosis, is to be found throughout Selected Poems (see, for exam- 
ple, in "Against Still Life" [p. 37], "The Settlers" [pp. 45-46], "The 
Animals in That Country" [pp. 48-49], "Axiom" [p. 78], "Wish: 
Metamorphosis to Heraldic Emblem" [p. 107], and "She Consid- 
ers Evading Him" [p. 143]). In each, the transformation lends def- 
inition and meaning to the object or subject undergoing the 
change: what it is has significance and signification only when 
compared to what it was, and vice versa. Like the two worlds of de- 
sire and actuality that Circe simultaneously inhabits, this is a 
mode of the doubled signified that we saw in the Siren's song. 

The Siren and Circe together constitute a subject in the poems 
who seeks for an absolute or an essence of some kind — 
uniqueness, authenticity of experience, truth of love. This subject 
is set in a temporal matrix in which the future always promises de- 
livery of this essence; this matrix, however, is so structured as to 
make the future identical with a past that has always been deprived 
of the desired essentiality. 



IV 

Atwood's poems, though, do not construct the roles of victim 
and victimizer as the only possibilities for the female subject. 
Transforms of each other, the Siren and Circe are set in an opposi- 
tional relation to Penelope. Like Atwood's Siren, she desires res- 
cue in the Homeric model; like Circe, she wants Odysseus by her 
side. However, unlike either of them, her wishes are granted and 
legitimized. First, however, her passive identity as constructed by 
the Homeric model must be neutralized. She may be identified as 
the silent (that is, unspecified) archetype of the faithful wife in "At 
first I was given centuries" (pp. 154-55), who waits for a succession 
of men throughout human history, men who quest for glory and 
return maimed, if, indeed, they return at all. The futility of this 



Weaving Her Version 133 

role is thereby made manifest, as are the sadness and impHed 
anger at the speeding up of the process. The traditional image of 
the patiently enduring Penelope, as presented in The Odyssey, thus 
proves inadequate. 

Circe in "Circe/Mud Poems" characterizes Penelope differ- 
ently — this time as a middle-class manipulator, a matron with 
pretensions and a strong sense of decorum: 

Meanwhile she sits in her chair 
waxing and waning 
like an inner tube or a mother 
breathing out, breathing in, 

surrounded by bowls, bowls, bowls, 

tributes from the suitors 

who are having a good time in the kitchen 

waiting for her to decide 

on the dialogue for this evening 

which will be in perfect taste 

and will include tea and sex 

dispensed graciously both at once. (p. 218) 

In this slanted view of Penelope, understandable in the light of 
Circe's own feelings and ambitions, we can see a structure that re- 
flects the image of Homer's sirens on their island, surrounded by 
bleached bones, and attracting further victims (Homer, p. 210). 
Penelope's lure, in Circe's harsh description, is "dialogue," a 
verbality that establishes her kinship with both Circe and the 
Siren. In making her part of the same paradigm, Circe, from her 
position as victim, can define Penelope as a victimizer analogous 
to the Siren. 

That there is indeed a kinship between Penelope and her 
oppositional figures is demonstrable. In Homer's poem Penelope 
endlessly weaves a shroud for aged Laertes, Odysseus's father, un- 
doing at night what she accomplishes by day. This is another ver- 
sion of the duplicitous signifier: the production of an artifact 
turns out to be a strategy of delay. Circe's description of this proc- 
ess in "When you look at nothing" is reminiscent of the Siren's in- 
viting promise of knowledge: 

She's up to something, she's weaving 
histories, they are never right. 



134 David Buchbinder 

she has to do them over, 
she is weaving her version, 

the one you will believe in, 

the only one you will hear. (p. 218) 

The aim of Penelope's strategy in Homer's poem, however, is the 
obverse of the Siren's: delay instead of haste, distraction rather 
than attraction, fidelity rather than deceit. In Atwood's poem, its 
aim is to create an "official" history, authenticated by Odysseus's 
belief, and is thus seen by Circe as a kind of trap, certainly as a lie. 

However, in Atwood the features that differentiate Penelope 
from the figures of Circe and the Siren are more important and 
positive than those that identify her with them. If Penelope's 
poems (the last seven in Selected Poems) are read carefully, the 
sense of history, so central to the figures and perceptions of the 
Siren and Circe, is seen to be submerged in an awareness of the 
present moment as unique, irretrievable, and therefore valuable. 
The very title of the first of this group asserts this awareness: "Is/ 
Not." In this poem, the subject demands: "Permit me the present 
tense" (p. 225). There is again a characteristic emphasis on verbali- 
zation, but it expresses neither the disappointment of Circe nor 
the alluring call of the Siren, both condemned to solitary exis- 
tence. Instead, the poem asserts the value of mundane daily life 
and its provision of a context that must be engaged with if it is to 
be endured. This realistic attitude is at odds with the sentimental- 
ism of Circe's envisioned desirable alternative existence and with 
the Siren's high romance of rescue. 

Other poems in this group suggest indirectly that their subject 
is Penelope. The Homeric model used by Atwood permits the 
identities of Circe, the Siren, and, by implication, Penelope to 
function metonymically for other figures in the Homeric text. 
Thus, Athene and Eurycleia belong to the same paradigm as 
Penelope in that each desires the return of Odysseus, and, for 
Atwood's purposes, each is an active figure in the dynamic of gen- 
der roles. "Four Auguries" (pp. 230-31), for example, culminates 
in a benediction strongly reminiscent of the various symbolic 
epiphanies of Odysseus's protector, Athene, whose sacred bird is 
the owl, while "Head Against White" (pp. 232-35) includes what 
may be read as a reminder of the famous incident of the recogni- 
tion of Odysseus by his old nurse Eurycleia, who in bathing the 



Weavinpi Her Version 1 35 

apparent stranger sees a familiar scar. In "There Is Only One of 
Everything," there is a possible allusion to the bed test imposed by 
Penelope upon Odysseus. The secret of Odysseus's bed — that he 
carved it from a living tree and that the bed could not be moved 
without destroying the tree — becomes in Atwood's poem a char- 
acteristic transformation of the physical object into a verbal 
equivalent: just as "tree" became "bed" in The Odyssey, so "tree" 
becomes "words" .in Atwood's poem: 

Not a tree, but the tree 

we saw, it will never exist, split by the wind 

and bending down 
like that again. What will push out of the earth 

later, making it summer, will not be 

grass, leaves, repetition, there will 

have to be other words. ... (p. 236) 

This poem is important in the Penelope group because it takes the 
step from verbality to phenomenality: "When my / eyes close lan- 
guage vanishes." With the disappearance of language as an at- 
tempt to shape or create reality rather than merely to describe it or 
respond to its events, phenomena return to themselves and un- 
dergo a kind of epiphany: 

I look at you and you occur 

in this winter kitchen, random as trees or sentences, 

entering me, fading like them, in time you will disappear. . . . 

I can even say it, 

though only once and it won't 

last: I want this. I want 
this. 

With the repetition of that which she can say "only once," the 
speaker accepts, as Circe and the Siren cannot, the knowledge of 
the human condition of isolation and the evanescence of those 
moments, rendered valuable by their very brevity, of community 
with another being: "it won't last" (p. 236). 

It is in the last poem of Selected Poems, "Book of Ancestors" 
(pp. 238-40), that we can see a resolution of the conflicts explored 
throughout the collection; and since it is the Penelope-subject 
who speaks, that resolution is envisaged as momentary, available 



136 David Buchbinder 

for renegotiation in the continuous dialectic of human relation- 
ships. This resolution is placed in a temporal matrix established in 
the first section of the poem, which shows a series of human sacri- 
fices distributed through histor\' and space: "these brutal, with 
curled / beards and bulls' heads'" (Archaic Greeks, perhaps) are 
succeeded by "these, closer to us, / copper hawkman arched on 
the squat rock / pyramid" (Inca or Aztec?). We learn in the suc- 
ceeding sections that these sacrificial rituals remain as move- 
ments, postures: but their meaning changes as the religious 
purpose (union with the deit)') is substituted by another purpose 
(human union). 

In the second section, accordingly, we are told that "Histor\' / 
is over," and that the classification of the past yield to "a season, 
an undivided / space . . . ," that is, to individual human dimen- 
sions. The speaker and her addressee adopt the hieratic postures 
of priestess and sacrificial victim: 

... I lean behind you, mouth touching 
your spine, my arms around 
you, palm above the heart, 
your blood insistent under 
my hand, quick and mortal 

In the final section, the true essential sacrifice is made: not the 
offering of the physical living heart to an undefined dein»', but the 
transformation of the partners into one another. The speaker be- 
comes male in her approach and response to her addressee, while 
he in turn becomes female. First comes the traditional "ancient 
pose" of the sacrificial victim: 

On the floor your body cur\'es 
like that: the ancient pose, neck slackened, arms 
thrown above the head, vital 
throat and belly King 
undefended. 

However, despite the reminder or archaic ritual, "this is not an 
altar, they are not / acting or watching." Instead, it is a moment 
when by an act of transubstantiation (a sacrifice and transforma- 
tion drawn from a different mnh and a different model) the ten- 
sions of difference and separation are emptied out and a unit\'of 
identitN' is achieved: 



Weaving Her Version 137 

You are intact, you turn 

towards me, your eyes opening, the eyes 

intricate and easily bruised, you open 

yourself to me gently, what 

they tried, we 

tried but could never do 

before . without blood, the killed 

heart . to take 

that risk, to offer life and remain 

alive, open yourself like this and become whole. 

The poem thus ends, as does the volume, with a pax humana be- 
tween a man become virginal — "intact" — and passive, and a 
woman experienced and active. The emphasis is on the moment 
of mutual transformation and submission, not on a past or future 
definition of relationship, nor on any demand for a definition of 
the essential or absolute. 



Along with its discourse on gender. The Odyssey can be read as 
concerning itself with another, related discourse, that of fidelity 
in its several versions — as love, loyalty, and trust, in its positive 
forms, as well as in its negative transformations as enmity, be- 
trayal, and deceit. Seen this way, the Homeric model permits us to 
read Selected Poems as a text that varies or tropes upon this second 
discourse. Here, the representative figures of Circe, the Siren, and 
Penelope not only signify themselves, but are metonyms for other 
female figures in the Homeric paradigm. 

According to the Homeric model, Helen first betrays Menelaus 
by eloping with Paris and then betrays Paris and the Trojans by 
aiding Odysseus in his mission of espionage (Homer, p. 60). In 
Atwood's poems, the Siren's duplicity and her implicit history of 
a series of betrayals become metonymic of the infidelity in The 
Odyssey represented chiefly by Helen. The Siren comes to signify 
in Selected Poems the negation of fidelity as betrayal and deceit in 
all its aspects. 

Similarly, Circe, who in the Homeric original knows and ac- 
cepts the fact of Odysseus's departure, is a metonym in Atwood's 
poetry for Nausicaa. As with Nausicaa, Circe's yearning for 



138 David Buchbinder 

Odysseus must remain unsatisfied, and, like the princess on 
Phaeacia finally sealed forever from the outside world, Circe in 
Atwood's poetry remains trapped in a narrative that condemns 
her to loneliness. 

Only Penelope's discourse is free from recrimination and 
unsatisfied (and unsatisfiable) yearnings. Unlike the Siren and 
Circe, whose insistence on absoluteness and permanence in the 
politics of gender produces only frustration and sorrow, 
Penelope manages circumstance in order to arrive at temporary 
but nonetheless satisfying resolutions of the conflicts produced 
by the dynamics of gender politics. In this she acts as a metonym 
for Athene, whose opportunism and persuasiveness enable her to 
clear the path for Odysseus's eventual return home. Like the reso- 
lutions of conflict in Selected Poems, however, this conclusion to 
Athene's efforts to bring to an end the wanderings of Homer's 
hero is temporary only: his future departure from Penelope and 
Ithaca, and his "seaborne death" are predicted by Teiresias in 
book II of The Odyssey (Homer, pp. 188-89). 



VI 

The presence of the Homeric model is foreshadowed in the 
opening poem of Selected Poems, "This Is a Photograph of Me," 
which contains the elements of metamorphosis, verbality, confu- 
sions of tense, and duplicity of signification. In this text, a visual, 
iconic object, the photograph, is also a verbal, symbolic one, the 
poem. The "smeared / print" thus offers a double discourse in 
which words are part of a picture, and which strives to convey the 
presence of an absent subject. In addition, the temporal matrix is 
deliberately reversed or inverted: 

(The photograph was taken 
the day after I drowned. . . . 

The reader is made to question the temporal frame that permits 
the text to be spoken by an already drowned subject, who, invisi- 
ble, invites the reader to find her in the scene described: 

I am in the lake, in the center 

of the picture, just under the surface 



Weaving Her Version 139 



if you look long enough 

eventually 

you will be able to see me.) 



Spatial concepts, too, are inverted: the lake, though "in the back- 
ground," is also "in the center / of the picture," just as the 
drowned speaker, centered by the poem, is virtually invisible in 
the described photograph (p. 8). 

These paradoxes point to a characteristic element of both the 
Siren and the Circe poems: the trap constructed by language once 
it is employed to define time and space in absolute fashion. 
Caught in a temporal irony that makes a fact of the past (the 
drowning of the speaker) a fact also of the future ("you will be 
able to see me"), and therefore virtually indistinguishable from it, 
the drowned speaker of "This Is A Photograph of Me" encourages 
the reader to search an icon made of words for a true image of the 
subject. The voice of an unseen speaker emerging from the water 
inviting closer inspection is precisely analogous to the voice of the 
Siren luring her victim with the promise of knowledge, just as the 
transformation of an object (a photograph) into a sequence of 
words (the poem) is a metamorphosis in the Circean mode. 

We are reminded of this poem in another among those to be 
identified with Penelope, "Eating Fire" (pp. 227-29). In this 
poem, the addressee, a phoenix who has returned from the fire, is 
able to see 

everything, as you wished, 
each object (lake, tree, woman) 

transfigured with your love. ... (p. 229) 

If the voice of the earlier poem can be identified with the Siren, the 
logic of the Homeric model that unites Siren, Circe, and Penelope 
in a triad permits us, by virtue of the intra textual reference in the 
later poem, to read that voice as double, as including also the 
voice of Penelope. In this way, then, the first poem of Selected 
Poems presents the Homeric model covertly, requiring the reader 
to discover its explicit presence in the poems selected from Tou 
Are Happy and to read it back into those selected from The Circle 
Game onwards. 



I40 David Buchbinder 

VII 

The uncovering in Selected Poems of the Homeric model shows 
that the debate about gender and role is not restricted only to our 
own time and culture. Clearly, the discrepancy referred to earlier, 
between the fact of the primacy of female figures in the narrative 
structure of The Odyssey and known historical patriarchal social 
structures in Homer's society, suggests that the question of gen- 
der roles was no less complicated in Homer's time than in our 
own. Atwood's use of Homer foregrounds those issues relevant 
to her. We can understand how Selected Poems re-constructs 
Penelope because we are aware of how Homer's text constructs 
her. We are also thereby enabled to see both the differences and 
the similarities between Homer's culture and our own, and to per- 
ceive, further, a continuity of discourse and debate between these 
two cultures. 

The presence in Selected Poems of a Homeric model functions to 
consolidate a theme, the nature of culturally defined sexual roles, 
that operates also at other levels in the poems. In terms of the 
"story" that is told, Atwood's poetry arrives at the conclusion that 
gender relationships are most fruitfully defined as existing in the 
present moment and that it is necessary always to confirm their 
existence and structure through negotiation between partners. 

The Homeric model is only one of many potential models func- 
tioning in and across the entire collection, intersecting with each 
other, or remaining parallel to and distinct from one another.* 
These models are not each necessarily to be found in every poem, 
nor indeed in each volume of Atwood's poetry^ neither are they to 
be recognized always by an overt intertextual allusion. Rather, 
they exist as a repertoire of structures, patterns, and linguistic fea- 
tures to be drawn on at need. Atwood, like her Penelope, uses 
these models to weave her own version, which rearranges their ele- 
ments into suggestive new configurations and installs her work as 
part of an old yet always new discourse. 

Notes 

1. Atwood, Selected Poems (Toronto: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976). Page 
references in the text are to this edition. 

2. I am indebted both for this notion of the literary model and for ma- 
terials other than "Polysystem Theory," to Professor Even-Zohar's semi- 



Weaving Her Version 1 4 1 

nar on polysystem theory, given as part of the International Summer In- 
stitute for Semiotic and Structuralist Studies, 26 May-22 June 1985 at In- 
diana University, Bloomington, Indiana. 

3. Evcn-Zohar, in his paper "Aspects of the Hebrew Yiddish Poly- 
system" (1979), argues that this is the actual relation between poly- 
systems, rather than a simple fusing of both into a single system. 

4. In Selected Poems these include the Gothic, as in "The Wereman" (p. 
85; see Judith McCombs, "Atwood's Haunted Sequences: The Circle 
Game, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, and Power Politics'''')., pioneer 
writing — journals', letters, prose accounts, and poetry — chiefly in The 
Journals of Susanna Moodie; and other classical models, for instance, that 
of Narcissus, as represented in "Looking in a Mirror" (pp. 90-91) or 
"Tricks with Mirrors" (pp. 183-86). Models that operate in the back- 
ground oi Selected Poems include the poetic models of Yeats, Donne, and 
Marvell. For example, the entire collection may be read as a reworking of 
"To His Coy Mistress," asserting finally the lady's equality with the lover. 
No single model, therefore, will suffice to explain each poem in Selected 
Poems: for instance, in "The Wereman," cited above, we can discern not 
only the Gothic model, but also such classical models as that provided by 
Ovid's Metamorphoses, as well, of course, as the Homeric model of 
Circean transformation. 



II Politics y Structure^ and Poetic 
Development in Atwood^s 
Canadian- American 
Sequences 

From an Apprentice Pair to 
^n^he Circle Game^^ to 
^^wo-Headed Poems^^ 
Judith McCombs 



There exist in the Atwood papers at the University of Toronto 
two remarkable poem drafts, "The Idea of Canada" and "America 
as the aging demon lover," that precede and in part prefigure 
Atwood's published Canadian-American sequences, "The Circle 
Game" and "Two-Headed Poems." As this essay's first section 
will show, "Canada" and "America" have the characteristics of 
Atwood's apprentice period: the two personified nations are alle- 
gories, not characters; their multiplicities are statically cataloged, 
rather than metaphorically evoked; their Gothic elements are 
mainly grotesques and horrors; the muse of the Canadian poet 
James Reaney is audible in many lines. 

As explication and structural analysis of the published Cana- 
dian-American sequences will show, the 1964-1966 "Circle 
Game" clearly belongs to what I term Atwood's Stage I, the 
closed world of mirroring, female Gothic elements, where ap- 
prentice allegories become skillfully evoked characters, the meta- 
phors become simultaneous and metamorphic, the Gothic gro- 

142 



Politics, Structure, Poetic Development 143 

tesques change to implied horrors and interior female terror, and 
Atwood's muse has, almost always, incorporated or transformed 
her sources. Finally, as the third part of this essay will show, the 
political and Jaynesian "Two-Headed Poems" sequence of 1977- 
1978 — which critics up to now have avoided, or but quickly and 
partially explicated — attempts both to go back to the apprentice 
grotesques and forward into Atwood's just-thcn-bcginning Stage 
II, the open world, where mirroring and female Gothic elements 
are subordinated to realistic, transnational, human ends.' 

"Canada" and "America" were written around 1962-spring 
1963, at Harvard, when Atwood first left Canada for America, to 
earn a Radcliffe A.M.^ Their cumulative "who does this, who is 
that" rhetoric and their sprawling horizontal lines, which at times 
exceed the page, are obviously a response to Allen Ginsberg's 1956 
"Howl," that howl of American national identity. Their politics, 
mechanical allegories, and varying, overly long lines are also obvi- 
ously a response to James Reaney's i960 "Message to Winnipeg," 
concerning Canadian national identity {Poems, pp. 132-40). 

Their "packed" and "dispersed" iambic pentameter — to use 
Atwood's terms, taken from her [c. November 1962] notes and a 
20 November 1962 letter — suggests that they were written circa 
November 1962, when Atwood was deliberately breaking up her 
hitherto regular iambic pentameter lines. Their atypically long 
lines run counter to Atwood's 29 October 1962 statement "My 
Poetic Principles," which advocates short, "vertical" lines; but, as 
the [c. November 1962] notes indicate, one other way to revive the 
"dead" pentameter is to absolutely pack it full.^ 

Both "Canada" and "America" cover their pages and are obvi- 
ously fmishable poems, not fragments; in quality they rank with, 
or above, many, many of the hundreds of apprentice poems that 
Atwood revised through several drafts and finished. But appar- 
ently neither poem was redrafted or finished; only one holograph 
of each exists. Perhaps the horizontal form, borrowed partly from 
Reaney and more especially from the American male Ginsberg, 
who borrowed it from the American male Whitman, was too 
much borrowed, or too foreign. Or perhaps the Canadian nation- 
alism, which is the only unusual aspect of the two poems' con- 
tent, was somehow the problem; perhaps they exposed, too early 
or too crudely, Atwood's ideas of Canada and America? In each 



144 Judith Mc Combs 

title, "Canada" or "America" is coyly semihidden, with asterisks 
replacing all the vowels. 

"The Idea of Canada" begins and ends in Reaneyesque images 
of an empty, passive, pathetically colonial, or grotesquely violent 
Canada. It begins with the empty hand an old woman holds in 
lieu of a flag — Canada had no flag of its own until 1965 — while 
she waits for a royal procession to come to her village. Like 
Reaney's Stratford, Ontario, folk waiting for a royal visit ("The 
Royal Visit," Poems, p. 53) and like the narrator in his "Upper Ca- 
nadian" (Poems, pp. 56-57) waiting for nothing, Atwood's old 
woman has no country of her own; where she is, is nowhere. 

In the middle stanzas, where the "idea" of Canada becomes the 
old woman herself, she is recognizably Atwood's Canada, clearly 
prefiguring Stage I and Stage II versions. This Canada has laced 
her mouth tight; she is righteous, girdled, cold — an Auntie 
Muriel of Stage IPs Life Before Man. She is, however, much 
poorer: she scrounges chewed food from her (American) neigh- 
bor's garbage cans. 

As the Stage I Survival puts it, this is Canada as Crone, a "nasty, 
chilly old woman" trapped in the Canadian Rapunzel Syndrome, 
where ''''Rapunzel and the tower are the same'''' (pp. 199, 202, 209; 
Atwood's italics): Canada is her own prison, her own jailer. Or, as 
"The Idea of Canada" puts it, she keeps busy knitting comforters 
while stupifying in cages that are her own. The apprentice years 
are full of poems of frozen, freezing, caged, bottled, towered, life- 
less women, poems that were published steadily in Canadian 
journals — which suggests that Canadian editors could recognize 
a character relevant to Canada. But "The Idea of Canada" may be 
the first where the self-caged woman is overtly identified as Can- 
ada, the self-caged country. 

In the poem's third stanza Atwood's "Canada" becomes a mir- 
ror searcher, unable to see herself, seeing nothing, because her 
eyes (I's) are diseased and her mirror cracked. Here Atwood's 
Canada follows A. M. Klein's crazed Canadian poet (in "Portrait 
of the Poet as Landscape"), who "stares at a mirror all day long, as 
if/ to recognize himself; these lines are quoted in SurpivaFs in- 
troductory argument that Canadian literature's many mirror im- 
ages are a symptom of a nation trying vainly to see itself (p. 16). 

But what if Canada were to turn not to her mirror but to her 
landscape to see herself? Neither Klein's mad, isolated Canadian 



Politics, Structure, Poetic Development 145 

poet nor Atwood's self-caged Canada turn to their land; the latter 
prefers her stuffy cages and her pathetically colonial teacups, which 
bear another country's arms and crowns.'* But Atwood's narrator 
does, in the poem's fourth stanza, turn to the land, and for those 
few lines the poem comes alive with prophetic power: Canada's real 
polarities are snow, wood, river, trees. Here, for a moment, one can 
glimpse the Stage I Journals of Susanna Moodie, in which the pio- 
neer hero turns away from failed mirror images and confining par- 
lors to claim, enter, and literally become a part of her land. 

"Canada"'s last stanza, however, retreats indoors to a tableau of 
macabre violence: Canada has two heads; Canada thrills with Bibli- 
cal horror when the orphan-child viciously slits the dog's throat, in 
the parlor. The orphan's violence here may be a grotesque domestic 
allegory of English-French violence. Such morbid grotesques are 
characteristic of much of Atwood's apprentice poetry; here as else- 
where they follow James Reaney's ugly women, repellent orphans, 
and impacted parlor horrors. The two heads, French and English, 
will reappear in the Stage II sequence; the orphan child, with 
milder games, will reappear in the Stage I "Circle" sequence. 

"America" may have been written before "Canada" and later re- 
vised to make it a companion of sorts. The title of the earlier, pen- 
cil holograph is the wwasterisked "America as the demon"; the 
revised title, from a pen that seems to be the same as that used for 
"Canada," is the asterisked "America as the aging demon lover." 

The pencil holograph, of about six stanzas, begins and ends 
with old-fashioned Gothic horror: the demon surrounds you — 
the poem is cast in the second person — but you can't see him (as 
America's presence surrounds Canada); at the end, you turn from 
a mirror to feel the demon's paw, your nightmare. 

The middle, penciled stanzas are a catalog of grotesques, drawn 
from modern and older horrors — from science fiction, demon 
myths, comic books, and Reaney's anatomized and mechanical 
personifications of Winnipeg (p. 133). This America, of the me- 
chanical pulse and steel-totem spine nubbed with a smiling steel 
family, is Atwood's Metal Man, overt and literal in the apprentice 
years, covert and metaphorical in the mature work (for example, 
"Man with a Hook" in The Circle Game [p. 26] and the "friendly 
metal killers" o^ Surfacing [p. 130]). 

In the next stanza the demon is a wooden Indian, scarred, de- 
faced with a bloody lipstick word. In the next the demon has no 



146 Judith McCombs 

skin and is therefore a god. The multipHcities that are here 
statically asserted, not metamorphically created, prefigure the 
protean comic-book hero of Power Politics and of "Encounters 
with the Element Man." In the next stanza, the demon is total 
man, containing many animals, as the progressively insane Cana- 
dian pioneer oi The Animals in That Country (pp. 36-39) will fail 
to do. An oddly natural organic line, perhaps taken from comic 
books, has him spider-brained in a web of senses. Whatever he is, 
comic or mythic, he isn't human. 

The ink holograph develops and intensifies both the classic and 
the comic-book horrors: it, for example, scalps the Indian, adds 
what may be a Superman with motley costumes (as in Power Poli- 
tics and the "Element Man"), and adds the horror-film ending of 
Canada's desiring, yet locking the door against, America the 
demon lover — who like Mr. Hyde is already in the room. 

"The Idea of Canada" and "America as the aging demon lover," 
then, are recognizably Atwood's work; though form, image, and 
statically asserted multiplicities show only apprentice craft, still 
the central Atwood figures, of Canada as self-imprisoned 
Rapunzel Crone and America as Metal Man, are there. This "Can- 
ada" comes from Canadian literature and landscape, and will in 
time become the Susanna Moodie of the Journals, Atwood's po- 
etic masterpiece. This "America" comes from science fiction, 
myth, Reaney's anatomized Winnipegs, and the comic books im- 
ported from America — and will in time become the many- 
motley-costumed hero of Power Politics, which is Atwood's poetic 
masterpiece of female-male relations. ^ 



II 

"The Circle Game" sequence is often read, by Americans, as a 
miniature Power Politics, outlining, as it does, a power politics of 
female versus male. But for Atwood, one power game is like an- 
other. As explication and analysis of "Circle"'s concentric struc- 
ture will show, this sequence enacts not only gender but also 
national power scenarios: its mirror and window sections drama- 
tize Canadian versus American games; its children's-fortress sec- 
tions replay Canada's garrison history; and, at its climactic center, 
as in the apprentice "America" poem, national power games are 
revealed through a male-female horror scenario.* 



Politics, Structure, Poetic Development 147 

"The Circle Game" is one of the earHest of Atwood's Stage I 
poems; it existed by 23 September 1964, when Atwood sent it to 
Charles Pachter, who hand-printed fifteen copies with his litho- 
graphs that December (Atwood Papers, Box i). Almost all the 
other major poems of The Circle Game were written by the first 
half of 1965; and in 1966 Contact Press of Toronto published the 
book, which is Atwood's first real book and the beginning of her 
Stage I, the closed and mirroring world. 

The seven-part, concentric "Circle Game" is built of paired, en- 
circling sections: the unclaimed, solitary circling children of the 
outer sections, sections i and vii; the mirror-window couple of 
sections ii and vi; the garrison children of sections iii and vi; and, 
at the climactic center, section iv, the walled-in, childless, staring, 
eye-fixed couple. 

"Circle" first becomes a national as well as a gender parable in 
the paired mirror and window sections, sections ii and vi. Being 
with thtyou is like groping through a gelatinous melted mirror, 
thinks the / in section ii: 

You refuse to be 

and I [eye] 

an exact reflection, yet 

will not walk from the glass, 

be separate. (p. 36) 

She looks to him, and he to others, in a travesty of Victorian sex 
roles — he for images alone, she for images in him: 

You look past me, listening 

to them, perhaps, or 

watching your own reflection somewhere 



There is always 

(your face 
remote, listening) 

someone in the next room. (p. 37) 

His refusal to be enacts what Survival calls Canada's colonial 
mentality, which looks to others, British or American or French. 
Her refusal to be separate from him enacts gender entrapment — 
and also enacts the French-Canadian entrapment of a colony 
within a colony, a country within a country. 



148 Judith Mc Combs 

In the paired section vi, the glass is other people's windows, 
outside which the you plays orphan, the safe, hungry, "ragged win- 
ter game / that says, I am alone." It is "a game of envy" and con- 
tempt: he despises the cheap, Victorian Christmas-card suburban 
laughter of "father and mother / playing father and mother"; 
he'd rather be left by himself, "hugging himself in the cold. "You 
do it too," he accuses: the / partly admits and partly denies: "I 
tend to pose / in other seasons / outside other windows" 
(pp. 41-42). 

These mirror and window games are a national as well as a gen- 
der ritual: for Canadians, as for women, the problem is using the 
wrong mirrors/windows: trying to see oneself as English or 
American (for English Canadians), or as French (for French Ca- 
nadians); trying to see oneself as male, for women. Atwood ar- 
gues in Survival that Canadian literature's "large number of 
mirror and reflection images . . . suggest a society engaged in a 
vain search for an image, . . . like A. M. Klein's mad poet who 
'stares at a mirror all day long, as if/ to recognize himself " (p. 
16). Atwood's retrospective essay on "Canadian-American Rela- 
tions" discusses the Canadians' "amnesia" regarding their Cana- 
dian identity in "Circle'"s time: "They'd forgotten. They'd had 
their ears pressed to the wall for so long, listening in on the 
neighbours, who were rather loud, that they'd forgotten how to 
speak and what to say. They'd become addicted to the one-way 
mirror of the Canadian-American border — we can see you, you 
can't see us — and had neglected that other mirror, their own cul- 
ture" {Second Words, p. 385). 

The orphan game of section vi goes back to Reaney's supperless 
window-gazer: "I had not had mine yet and loved / The match 
girl orphan loneliness / Of watching other people eating theirs" 
(p. 137). In Atwood's "Circle" as in Reaney's "Winnipeg," these 
orphan gazers mimic Canadian history: "Both French and En- 
glish Canada," the novelist Brian Moore explains in the 
"Through the Looking Glass" chapter of his 1963 Time-Life Can- 
ada, "have grown up feeling neglected [by the mother countries, 
who abandoned them]. 'Canadians,' says Professor A. R. M. 
Lower, 'are the children of divorced parents and they know the 
bitterness that comes of a broken home . . .' " (pp. 60-61). Or, as 
Northrop Frye puts it, the nation, with its history of being treated 
as a colony, "developed with the bewilderment of a neglected 



Politics, Structure, Poetic Development 149 

child, preoccupied with trying to define its own identity" {Bush 
Garden, p. 221). 

After the couple's mirror games, and before their window- 
orphan games, come the paired sections iii and v, in which 
"Circle"'s real and unclaimed children reenact what Northrop 
Frye terms the Canadian "garrison mentality" (Bush Garden, 
pp. 225-26). In section iii the couple tell the children (who 
aren't theirs) romantic legends imported from Europe; the 
children's typically Canadian response is to disbelieve the hero- 
ics, but silently believe the danger. The next night, the couple 
find the children's fortified trenches and "lake-enclosed island / 
with no bridges," where the children have tried to make a human 
refuge against whatever "sword hearted" danger walks these night 
beaches (p. 38). Their sand play thus reenacts Canada's historic 
garrisons — which were European imports that walled their fear- 
ful inhabitants away from whatever was really there. 

In section v the couple take the children to a real, adult fort; the 
children like the archaic guns, armour, explosions. But the fort il- 
lustrates what happens to the garrison mentality in the twentieth 
century: its imperial earthworks crumble, its weapons left in glass 
cases turn fragile, it becomes a museum whose "elaborate de- 
fenses keep / things that are no longer / (much) / worth defend- 
ing" (p. 41). 

At "Circle"'s center, section iv, is the couple's climactic map 
game, in which imperial and horror scenarios underlie the gen- 
der domination: 

So now you trace me 
hke a country's boundary 



and I am fixed, stuck 

down on the outspread map 

of this room, of your mind's continent 

(here and yet not here, like 

the wardrobe and the mirrors 

the voices through the wall 

your body ignored on the bed), 

transfixed 

by your eyes' 

cold blue thumbtacks (pp. 39-40) 



I50 Judith McCombs 

This mapped impalement follows both the Anglo-American 
Prufrock's fear of "the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase" 
(Eliot, p. 5) and A. M. Klein's Canadian idea of poet as landscape. 
The "cold blue thumbtacks" may recall Klein's other isolated Ca- 
nadian poets, who are "pins on a map of a colour similar to his" 
("Portraits", p. 131); they may also recall James Reaney's 1963 edi- 
torial on Canada as the unseeing "country that sees itself [in a na- 
tional flag contest] as either a huge thumbtack or a series of small 
ones" (Editorial, p. 3). 

In "Circle Game" the Prufrock-poet is female as well as Cana- 
dian: doubly exposed, doubly colonized. And doubly silenced, 
without Klein's omniscient narrator to declare her the "nth Adam 
taking a green inventory" and mapping "his own body's chart" 
("Portrait," p. 133). Being mapped — the female Canadian posi- 
tion — is different. 

This mapped impalement implies also a Gothic scenario, of the 
hapless maiden readied for rape and/or torture in the chamber of 
the ruthless villain: "I am fixed, stuck / down on the outspread 
map / of this room . . . / transfixed" (p. 40). But xh&you is no 
"America the demon lover," no foreign conqueror; rather, as in 
his mirror and orphan games, he is Canadian, a staring, passive, 
frigid imitator of his imperial models. 

"The Circle Game," then, is a series of concentric children's 
and adult mirror, orphan, garrison, and map games that corre- 
spond to Canadian national and intranational games, as well as to 
Gothic and gender scenarios. In her retrospective appreciation, 
"Eleven Years of Alphabet,'" Atwood quotes James Reaney's 1961 
explanation of how simply juxtaposing myth to everyday reality 
can let the reader see the mythic correspondences in the real: this 
is just what happens when a circle is placed by face cards, and the 
eye sees circles; a triangle, and the eye sees corners and angles (Sec- 
ond Words, p. 92). Similarly, if one juxtaposes imperial, intra- 
national, gender, or horror patterns to "Circle"'s games, as this 
essay has done, just such correspondences appear. Atwood had, 
by 1964, learned to write for multiple juxtapositions and multiple 
correspondences: the mature Stage I work, from "The Circle 
Game" on, lays out real games, and lets the reader juxtapose and 
see what truths or myths appear. 



Politics, Structure, Poetic Development 151 

III 

"Two-Headed Poems" is the title sequence of the book that in 
1978 began Atwood's Stage II, the open world, in which Stage I 
mirroring, female Gothic elements are subordinated to a wider 
social realism and a greater concern for human ethics. Written 
after several years away from poetry and first published in the Oc- 
tober 1977 This Majfazine, the "Two-Headed Poems" sequence is 
perhaps best read as an embryonic (or misborn) Stage II work: in a 
book of poems that celebrate the particular child, the maternal 
generations, and the universal bicameral human consciousness, 
this sequence is a political sideshow of the two Canadas, French 
and English, as quarreling left-brain Siamese twins — who yet, 
with their Jaynesian right brains, utter supranational oracles on 
human language. 

As this explication and structural analysis will show, the se- 
quence is a difficult composite of three elements: a Siamese-twin 
monster carried over from Atwood's apprentice years/ the 
French- versus English-Canadian language wars, which by 1977 
seemed close to splitting Canada; and Julian Jaynes's mystic Ori- 
gins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 
which inspired both the sequence and the book and apparently in- 
duced Atwood's Stage II return to poetry. 

That Atwood still considers "Two-Headed Poems" essential is 
suggested by its inclusion, uncut and prominently centered, in 
the first section of the 1986 Selected Poems II (pp. 27-36). Critics, 
however, have mostly avoided the sequence, except for Jerome H. 
Rosenberg's germinal 1979-80 discussion of certain of its 
Jaynesian elements and Sherrill E. Grace's illuminating 1981 guide 
to certain of its now-topical political allusions.* 

The 1977 two-headed monster comes, Atwood's preface indi- 
cates, from a Canadian National Exhibition of twenty-some years 
past of Siamese twins " foined Head to Head, and still alive!'' " 
Atwood's preface explains that one head speaks French (trans- 
lated), the other English; they speak the eleven poems singly, to- 
gether, or alternating within a poem. At readings in the States, 
Atwood used hand signals to indicate which head, or heads, was 
speaking; in print, however, Atwood has steadfastly refused to 
identify the heads, though Dennis Lee, the This Magazine editors, 



152 Judith McCombs 

and Oxford all felt the need.^ Perhaps some speeches are 
interchangeable? 

Because, as This Magazine''?, editors noted in i977, "Two- 
Headed Poems" was written after, and in the light of, the previous 
years' Quebec events, a brief summary may be useful here: by 1976 
the two solitudes (as Hugh MacLennan termed them) of French 
and English Canada had grown increasingly hostile over language 
and secession; though the Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) 
bombings had stopped, and Prime Minister Trudeau had made 
the country officially bilingual, Rene Levesque's separatist Parti 
quebecois had been gaining power — and so had an English- 
Canadian backlash. In June 1976 the federal government in 
Ottawa had apparently supported the Anglophone pilots' and air 
controllers' protests against Francophone pilots' and air control- 
lers' speaking French over Quebec airspace. On 15 November 
1976, Levesque and his separatist Parti were elected; they quickly 
mandated French throughout Quebec — in the then-English- 
dominated businesses, the government, the schools, even on 
street signs. From summer 1977 on, Levesque's separatist referen- 
dum on Quebec seemed imminent — and winnable.^'' 

That, briefly, is where "Two-Headed Poems" begins: poem i 
opens with the two Canadas almost getting somewhere but not 
really, as usual, when suddenly America crumbles in a great quake 
or rift and everything falls south "into the dark pit left by 
Cincinnati" (p. 60). Only rubble and slogans remain; "What will 
happen to the children," the two heads ask, "not to mention the 
words / we've been stockpiling for ten years now," defining and 
freezing and storing them? (p. 61). Whether the words are pure 
French for the elite of each Canada, or Quebec's nutive joual, or 
the endangered English signs in French Canada, they are now use- 
less, outdated tokens of identity, unviable, like the small English 
family businesses forced out of Montreal. 

The first poem ends with disintegration: "the death of shoes [as 
in the FLQ 1966 shoe factory bombing], fingers / dissolving from 
our hands, / atrophy of the tongue / the empty mirror"; without 
America, the Canadas are sublimated "from ice [I's] to thin air" 
(p. 61). Though this disintegration strongly suggests a nuclear ca- 
tastrophe, in the next ten poems the heads go on talking, alive and 
uninjured. What has happened in the first poem, then, must ei- 
ther be a flash forward ("This rubble is the future" [p. 60]), or a 



Politics, Structure, Poetic Development 153 

nuclear-imaged crumbling of the American economy, as in the 
midseventies recession, or perhaps, as Cincinnati suggests, a 
crumbling of the original American ideals. 

Though the heads speak 1977 Canadian at each other, however, 
the underlying strata come from Jaynes: in poem i the cata- 
strophic rift and collapse of America, the stockpiling of useless 
words, and the ensuing collapse of the two heads' identities, all 
echo Jaynes's description of the ancient Aegean land's collapse 
that destroyed Atlantis, its civilization, and gods: whole peoples 
then became refugees, "strange language bellowed at uncompre- 
hending ears," and "the storings up and distillings of admonitory 
experience gained in the peaceful authoritarian ordering of a bi- 
cameral nation" became unworkable, useless. The ancient bicam- 
eral, literally god-hearing mind collapsed into modern godless, 
/-conscious, left-hemisphere man (pp. 212-13). 

The entire poetic sequence is structured like its first poem: the 
1977 two-headed Canadian overburden rests on Jaynesian bicam- 
eral strata, especially as they are explained in his "Causes of Con- 
sciousness," which attempts "a paleontology of consciousness, in 
which we can discern stratum by stratum how this metaphored 
world we call subjective consciousness was built up and under 
what particular social pressures" (pp. 204-22, 216) . Careful analy- 
sis, Javnes in hand and 1977 Canada in mind, will show that "Two- 
Headed Poems" is concentrically structured, stratum by stratum, 
as Atwood's analogous paleontology of Canada's two left- 
brained national consciousnesses and of the metaphors and pres- 
sures that formed them. 

"Two-Headed Poems" is internally centered, with three 
Jaynesian oracles: the first, sun-invocation oracle comes sixth and 
center in the eleven poems. Poem ix is the second oracle, the right- 
brain revelation of the way out; the final poem, poem xi, offers a 
third, briefly dreamt oracle of freedom. On either side of poem 
vi's central oracle, the poems correspond as they recapitulate cer- 
tain stages of Jaynes's evolution of language and consciousness: 
poem i corresponds to poem xi; poems ii and iii somewhat to 
poem viii (which was added later) and to what are now poems ix 
and x; poem iv to poems viii and ix; poem v to poems vii and x. 
These Jaynesian correspondences are not so simple as "The Circle 
Game"'s centered correspondences; instead they are converse, 
changed, and magnified, like reflections in a funhouse mirror. 



154 Judith McCombs 

Thus, the first poem's catastrophic disintegrations of America 
and of the two Canada's identities, and its voluntarily stockpiled 
words that have been stored like foods in the cellar, recapitulate 
Jaynes on the Atlantis collapse and on humanity's first use of writ- 
ten language, on the way to consciousness, for inventory of goods 
(pp. 212-13, 218). The corresponding end poem, poem xi, has the 
same Jaynesian stages of disintegration and stockpiled language, 
but conversely developed: poem xi begins with the negative and 
involuntary use of nouns as foods. English, sneer the French, is 
good only for groceries, not for song or soul; under Trudeau's 
federal bilingualism and Quebec's unilingualism, the Canadas — 
especially the hitherto-privileged English Canadians of Mon- 
treal — have become the grocers' prisoners, caged like geese and 
force fed nouns. The corresponding disintegration of the two 
Canadas' left-brain identities in the oracular end of poem xi is, 
conversely, positive, a freedom that transcends borders in a 
dreamt return to the Jaynesian right brain where language is flow- 
ing verbs and song. 

Poems ii and iii follow two other Jaynesian causes of conscious- 
ness, the perception of others and the development of long-term, 
treacherous deceit. After Atlantis, Jaynes suggests, the ^''observa- 
tion of difference may be the origin of the analog space of conscious- 
ness'''' \ the individual who posited an interior self in strange others 
could infer, by analogy, his own (p. 217, Jaynes's italics). "Deceit 
may also be a cause of consciousness," Jaynes suggests; treachery, 
impossible for bicameral man, creates a mask self to survive invad- 
ing strangers (pp. 219-20). 

In poem ii the Canadas define themselves by first defining the 
strange others, the Americans: "They scatter [their words], we / 
hoard" (p. 62) . Economically and culturally invaded, the Canadas 
grow masks of English propriety and French sneering at those 
who own and tour their Canada. In poem iii the Canadas posit, 
stupidly, each other's selves: "We think of you as one / big happy 
family, sitting around / an old pine table," say the English to the 
French, patronizingly. "We make too much noise, / you know 
nothing about us, / you would like us to move away," the sullen 
French respond (p. 63). Defining others first and oneself after, by 
negative contrast, is a Canadian reflex and a symptom of the lack 
of an independent identity (even Survival defines other literatures 
first, and Canadian second or third, in almost every chapter). In 



Politics, Structure, Poetic Development 155 

poems ii and iii the two Canadas are using Jaynes's stages of the 
origins of consciousness as excuses and delays: like the couple in 
"Circle'^s mirror-window games, they focus on others, external 
and internal, and on masks and complaints. 

These two Jaynesian stages of consciousness — the perception 
of strange others and the development of deceit — will reappear in 
the corresponding poems after poem vi, progressing to honesty 
and transformation in poems viii and ix, regressing to violent 
treachery in the alternate version of poem x. 

In poem iv, the "investigator is here," to command and rule by 
fear: "Stop this heart! / Cut this word from this mouth. / Cut 
this mouth" (p. 64). The Canadian references are multiple: to the 
federal Commissioner of Official Languages, who enforced 
bilingualism; to French attempts to purify French; to the Parti 
quebecois purging of English from Quebec, especially from 
Montreal; to the Anglophone pilots' and controllers' attempt to 
purge French from the skies of Quebec. For Atwood, whoever en- 
forces and purges words, kills language, hearts, mouths. 

The Jaynesian references in poem iv are also multiple: the investi- 
gator reenacts the invading strangers who issue commands, "per- 
haps in a strange language" (p. 220); and "cruelty as an attempt to 
rule by fear is," Jaynes suggests, "at the brink of subjective con- 
sciousness" (p. 214). ^1 Thus, in poem iv, the investigator's com- 
mands are followed by the Canadas' first consciousness of them- 
selves as a subjected people, lacking names and flag: "For so much 
time, our history / was written in bones only. / Our flag has been 
silence, / which was mistaken for no flag" (p. 64). 

For Jaynes, commands precede nouns and nouns precede 
names in the evolution of language (pp. 133-36). In poem iv, the 
investigator's commands lead to a consciousness of the nameless 
bones; in the corresponding poem ix, which was originally poem 
viii, the words that will be named and claimed are those of the 
dead. (The present poem viii, added later, recapitulates con- 
sciousness and cutting.) 

Poems V and vii, on either side of the central poem vi, are the 
modern politicized consciousness that produces false followers 
and a false leader. Poem v refers particularly to the newly articu- 
late, noisily politicized quebecois intelligentsia: "Is this what we 
wanted, / this politics ...?... Our hearts are flags now, / they 
wave at the end of each / machine we can stick them on" (pp. 



156 Judith McCombs 

64-65). The intelligentsia have attempted to capture the snow "in 
a language so precise / and secret . . . / there could be no transla- 
tion" (p. 65). They have crusaded to "save this language," be it the 
vulgar native yoM«/ or the elite French, by pushing back the coarse 
English and American words "spreading themselves everywhere / 
like thighs or starlings" (p. 65). For Atwood, this is antilanguage 
and antilife; as in Power Politics, the snow cannot be captured 

(P- 37). 
The way out of such politics, revealed at the sequence's center 

in poem vi, is a Jaynesian return to the oracular right hemisphere 

of the mind, which can utter truths transcending the two left 

hemispheres' hostile nationalisms. Poem vi begins ironically, 

with left-brain, scientific reasons for humility: "Despite us / there 

is only one universe, the sun / burns itself slowly out no matter / 

what you say, is that / so?" (p. 66). This cosmic English rebuke to 

Quebec's struggle for a place in the sun (see, for example, 

Trofimenkoff, p. 313) is followed by a French rhetorical retort. 

Then comes the inset invocation to the sun: 

Close your eyes [I's] now, see: 
red sun, black sun, ordinary 
sun, sunshine, sun- 
king . . . 

ice [eyes] on the sun. (p. 66) 

Though poem vi's opening can be misread as mere English versus 
French irony, and its sun-spelling as mere semantics, what mat- 
ters is the humility and the invocation. This sun-spelling is what 
Jaynes calls induced possession: under rationalism, the right- 
brain god-voices are no longer heard spontaneously; the oracles 
are vestigal and must be induced, as by the youth Aedesius, who 
would " 'look at the sun' " to produce oracles (pp. 344-45). The 
sequence from poems iv and v to vi, from cruelty and flag waving 
to sun-god, may have followed Jaynes's consciousness-paralleling 
history (pp. 215-16); clearly the stages in poems iv, v, and vi, which 
go from commands to namelessness to these sun-spell metaphors 
that allow new perceptions, recapitulate Jaynes's evolution of lan- 
guage (pp. 133-38). 

In the center poem, sun-spelling brings forth the first, right- 
brain oracle. Language is a birth, "wet & living" and, simultane- 
ously, degenerate and devouring, a Jungian Great Mother 



Politics, Structure, Poetic Development 157 

tongue: "each / word is wrinkled / with age, swollen / with 
other words, with blood" (p. 67). The oracular right brain, which 
may be shared by the two heads, can say to each nationalist left 
brain: 

Your language hangs around your neck, 

a noose, a heavy necklace; 

each word is empire, 

each word is vampire and mother. (p. 67) 

But poem vi ends in left-brain sophistry: is it true or false that 
"there are as many / suns as" sun words? (p. 67) The mocking 
questions that precede and follow the central oracle, plus the false 
politics of poems v and vii, before and after the oracle, indicate 
that in the two-headed, left-brained Canada of 1977, the oracle 
falls on jabbering mouths and deaf ears. 

"Our leader" in poem vii, then prime minister Pierre Eliot 
Trudeau, is no oracle, but a deceitful double man of two voices, 
two heads, two sets of genitals — an allusion to his activities with 
both sexes. He is a spider who traps and sucks out the life of 
words. He is a monster of deceit: "Who does our leader speak for? 
/ How can you use two languages / and mean what you say in 
both?" The rhetoric is neutral, but the caricature is suspiciously 
English Canadian. Poem vii ends with the passive bitterness of a 
divided country: "He is ours and us, / we made him" (p. 69). 

Poem viii, added after the original sequence ran in This Maga- 
zine and in response to Dennis Lee's questions (Atwood Papers, 
Box 14), resumes where poems ii and iii left off, with politeness, 
the Americans, and mutual recrimination. If I were really a for- 
eigner, each head says to the other, "you would be more polite." 
In 1977 Canada, America is not the problem — foreigners come 
and go, "invisible / except for their cameras" and strange fra- 
grances. The problem is the two heads, who "are not foreigners / 
to each other" but rather "the pressure / on the inside of the skull, 
. . . the grudging love, / the old hatreds." Are they two left brains, 
joined only in their deficient right side? The grotesque pun is pos- 
sible. After all, why fear separation, unless the severing knife 
"would cut not skin but brain?" (p. 70). However grotesque, this 
is a new stage of consciousness: political honesty. 

As in Jaynes (p. 93), fear precedes prophecy: the sustained and 
beautiful oracle of poem ix resumes where the originally parallel 



158 Judith McCombs 

poem iv left off, with the names of the dead, who must be learned 
and claimed. The dead belong to particular Canadian history, 
French and English and native: "This word [that] was shut / in 
the mouth of a small man / choked off by the rope and gold / / 
red drumroll" (p. 70) is the word for Riel, the French Metis hero 
hung by the MacDonald Conservative government in 1887; is the 
word for each of the French and English hung by the British in the 
1837-38 Rebellions of Lower (French) and Upper (English) Can- 
ada. The word that was deported is from one of the fifty-eight peo- 
ple deported to Australia from the Rebellion in Lower Canada 
(Trofimenkoff, p. 78; Atwood, Days of the Rebels, pp. 108, 112; In- 
terview, p. 190). The gutteral word that was buried "wrapped in a 
wolfskin" is native and trapper, French and English, historic and 
pre-historic. The word under the lake "with a coral bead and a ket- 
tle" is native and voya^eur. The scrawny self-denying word is a 
poor settler, probably Protestant; the word that "died of bad 
water" (p. 71) is anyone. 

This eerie, beautiful litany of the dead incorporates and trans- 
forms the two nations' language wars, their recitals of ancient 
wrongs (compare Moore, p. 93; Atwood, Interview, p. 190), and 
Jaynes's evolution of language from nouns to names and graves 
(pp. 219-20). Flere, transformed, the particular becomes the 
human species, all the ancestors that must be claimed. The Stage I 
English-oriented Survival had argued that Canadians must claim 
their own literature and identity, not imported ones, or remain in- 
complete, colonials. This Stage II oracle says that the two 
Canadas must transcend their separate histories to learn and 
claim each other's ancestors, and the first peoples', as they claim 
their own: 

These words are yours, 

though you never said them, 

you never heard them, history 

breeds death but if you kill 

it you kill yourself. (p. 71) 

Whether the heads speak in unison or alternately, their right-brain 
oracle is speaking, to both left brains. 

Poem X shows what has and will occur if the oracle goes un- 
heard: the civil deceits of poems ii and iii, and the politicized 
hearts of poem vi, will turn to treacherous violence (compare 



Politics, Structure, Poetic Development 159 

Jaynes, p. 220). The party "hearts we sent you / in the mail," say 
the French or the politicized, hold snipers, as your hearts do, 
"glass-eyed fanatic[s],/ waiting to be given life" (p. 72); the image 
recalls the FLQ's mailbox bombs in Montreal's English 
Westmount, in the early sixties. Meanwhile, the English and the 
not yet violent refuse to believe that their hearts too hold violent 
secrets. Meanwhile, English and French let violence seep in on the 
evening news "fropi foreign countries, / those places with unsafe 
water. / We listen to the war, the wars, / any old war" (p. 73). On 
both sides, Canadian left-brain hypocrisy and apathy are drifting, 
stupidly, into civil war. 

The sequence ends at poem xi, with Trudeau's sneer at English, 
and with the Canadas, or the English ones, caged like geese and 
force fed nouns. A third and final oracle from the right brain envi- 
sions what language should be: 

Our dreams though 

are of freedom, a hunger 

for verbs, a song 

which rises liquid and effortless, 

our double, gliding beside us 

over all these rivers, borders, 

over ice or clouds. (p. 75) 

This is a third language, gliding over the frozen Fs; neither 
French nor English, but bicameral song and dream. It is also an 
Indian language, belonging to these rivers and borders and sky, as 
the imported, fixating, separating, noun-seeing European lan- 
guages do not. "In one of the languages there are no nouns, only 
verbs held for a longer moment," the Stage I Surfacing vision re- 
veals (p. 181). In the Meanjin interview of 6 March 1978 (p. 196), 
and again in the Hammond interview that accompanies "Two- 
Headed Poems" in the American Poetry Review of 1979 (p. 28), 
Atwood stresses the need for the third, native language, which 
does not separate things into fixed objects, but lets them flow 
within their matrix: the concept, Atwood says, is not even trans- 
latable into English, because English scarcely allows such 
thoughts. For Atwood, "language is everything you do" {Surfac- 
ing, p. 129); as in Jaynes (p. 292), changing the two nations' lan- 
guages would change their concepts and behavior. 

The last oracle of poem xi is only a vision of what could be; the 



i6o Judith McCombs 

reality, where poem xi ends, is that for two hostile left brains, 
dreams "settle nothing. / This is not a debate / but a duet / with 
two deaf singers" (p. 75). The final sarcasm undercuts what had 
seemed at least a rude dialogue, of the heads speaking with and at 
each other. 12 

"Two-Headed Poems," then, clearly belongs to Atwood's 
Stage II Canadian and human politics. The two Canadas are in the 
center foreground, causing their own problems with their hostile, 
ignorant, false, and dangerous left-brain nationalisms, and ignor- 
ing the right-brain oracles. The United States is relegated to back- 
ground and partial cause: poem i shows the collapsed nation as 
the first victim of its out-of-control technology; Canada gets the 
trickle-up. Atwood's apprentice poems of the United States as 
demon lover and Canada as poor frozen Rapunzel, and the Stage I 
"Circle Game" poems of Canada as passive victim, mirror-starer, 
and orphan-outsider, seem, in contrast, immature victim 
games — as in SurvivaVs Victim Position Two, which is blaming 
one's problems on some overpowering other (p. 37). 

In "Two-Headed Poems" the oracles rebuke both of Canada's 
feuding nations and call for a human, supranational claiming of 
all the ancestors who have entered the land: French, English, na- 
tive, nameless. As in the apprentice "Idea of Canada" and the 
Stage \ Journals of Susanna Moo die, Canada is the land itself — not 
the politicians whose slogans divide and desecrate the land. And 
for Atwood, after Jaynes, language is the wider human territory, 
the Great Mother tongue that should be learned and claimed, 
with love — not force, investigators, laws — if we are to become 
fully human. 

One predicts that, from this two-headed sequence of misborn 
grotesques and Canada's now-topical 1977 language crises, it is 
the oracles that will survive. 



Notes 

I. All references to Atwood's novels and books of poetry are to the 
Canadian editions. The Atwood Papers are in the Fisher Rare Book Li- 
brary at the University of Toronto; "The Idea of Canada" and "America 
as the aging demon lover" are in Boxes 7 and 6 of the papers.) Stage I and 
Stage II are drawn from my book in progress, "Margaret Atwood: Meta- 
morphoses, Evidence, and Archetypes." I am grateful to the National En- 
dowment for the Humanities for a 1982-83 Fellowship for College 
Teachers to research this book; and to the Canadian Embassy Faculty Re- 



Politics, Structure, Poetic Development i6i 

search Programme 1984-85 and Senior Fellowship 1985-86 Grants, which 
supported this paper. 

An earlier version of the first two sections of this paper was given at a 
special session on "Margaret Atwood: Poetics and Politics," Modern 
Language Association annual convention, Washington, D.C., 28 Decem- 
ber 1984. A fuller discussion of Atwood's Gothic elements is provided in 
my 1981 "Atwood's Haunted Sequences." 

2. Margaret Atwood, personal interview, 28 May 1985. 

3. [C. November 1962] notes. Box 6; Margaret Atwood, letter to 
James Carscallen, 2:0 November [1962], and "Principles," Box i. 

4. Compare the old woman and her teacups in The Circle Game''s 
more subtle poem of Canadian identity, "A Place: Fragments" (pp. 73- 
74), and, of course, Susanna Moodie in her stuffed, tea-set parlor (p. 47). 

5. The Canadian-American politics of these two apprentice poems 
feed into a number oiThe Animals in That Country poems, particularly 
"At the tourist centre in Boston," "Roominghouse, winter," and, as 
Atwood pointed out in the 28 May 1985 interview, "Backdrop addresses 
cowboy" (pp. 18-19, 28-29, 50-51). The latter two (and perhaps the first) 
were once part of a series called "American Poems." 

6. This essay builds on Sherrill Grace's suggestive remarks on 
"Circle"'s paired, reflecting structure {Violent Duality, pp. 20-22); and 
on Sullivan's key 1977 discussion of "Circle"'s garrison mentality (p. 31). 

7. In the apprentice period, the two heads appeared at the end of the 
holograph "Idea of Canada," in the holograph "Sideshow" (Box 5), and 
in the fourth, center poem of the published 1964 "Fall and All" sequence. 
In "Fall" the Siamese twins are Adam and Eve, caged in a double body, 
doomed to barren mourning for their unborn children; a stepfather and a 
cruel mother, serpent-virtued, has imprisoned the two thus in each oth- 
er's skin and blood. Whether or not these Siamese twins were intended, 
like the 1977 pair, as figures of French and English Canada, deformed by 
their parent countries, their allegory was already overloaded, their "Fall" 
static and contorted. 

8. Rosenberg, pp. 134-36, reprinted in his 1984 Atwood, pp. 87-88; 
Grace, "Atwood and Duplicity," pp. 66-68. Irvine's fine 1981 essay on the 
rest of the book barely mentions this sequence. Of the five essays in Grace 
and Weir that deal with Atwood's poetry, only Grace (p. 7) and Weir (p. 
149) give it brief space; Blakeley, Mandel, and Woodcock barely mention 
it. Davey {Margaret Atwood) and Mallinson ignore the sequence. 

9. Margaret Atwood, letter to Bill Toye of Oxford, 27 April 1978, 
Box 14. 

10. "Two-Headed Poems," This Ma£[azine, p. 18; Trofimenkoff, pp. 
317-32; Milner, pp. 235-53; Jacobs, pp. 78-79- 

1 1 . Cf. also Jaynes: "Militarism, police, rule by fear are all the desperate 
measures used to control a subjective conscious populace restless with 
identity crises and divided off into their multitudinous privacies of hopes 
and hates" (p. 205). 

12. Song, according to Jaynes, is primarily right-brain (pp. 365-67). Ex- 
cept in the three oracles, this sequence is obviously left-brain argument, 



i62 Judith Mc Combs 

and not "a song / which rises liquid and effortless" (p. 75). Like the idea 
of two quite articulate Siamese twins unable to hear each other's speech, 
even by vibrations, the idea of the two heads as singers is a grotesque 
sarcasm. 



I 



1 2 Real a nd Imaginary 
Animals in the Poetry 
of Margaret Atwood 

Kathleen Vo£ft 



Reporting on her visits to the Toronto zoo, in an article entitled 
"Don't Expect the Bears to Dance," Margaret Atwood describes 
the modern institution, designed to provide the animals within it 
with something approaching their natural habitats, as a consider- 
able advance over earlier zoos. Of the latter she writes: 

The traditional zoo was a cross between a circus freak show and a museum 
with the animal "exhibits" arranged side by side in little cubicles. This 
kind of zoo was essentially a Victorian institution and the Victorians 
were great collectors and classifiers; so they put all the cats together in the 
cat house, all the monkeys in the monkey house, all the birds in the bird 
house and so forth. Unfortunately, the animals might as well have been 
stuffed and kept in glass cases; all you could see was what they looked like, 
as they rarely had the chance to display any form of natural behavior. The 
arrangement was convenient for people — with all the animals crowded 
together, not much walking was involved — but hell on the animals.^ 

In the new Metro zoo, Atwood fmds herself "walking among 
the animals rather than being separated from them," unless she 
visits at an inopportune time (in the afternoon, for example) 
when many are asleep in their lairs or unless she attempts to ap- 
proach the very shy, who take to hiding out in long grasses, with at 
best only their ears showing. "Zoos make me nervous," Atwood 
declares at the beginning^wrf end of her report. But environments 
that allow animals to ignore or reject encounters with human 
would-be observers obviously make Atwood less nervous than 
cages, Victorian or other, in which living creatures, contained in a 

163 



i64 Kathleen Vq£ft 

manner suited to inanimate objects, frequently go mad or die in 
order to satisfy human curiosity. 

Atwood's interest in animals is not confined to expression in an 
occasional essay on the Toronto zoo. Her essays on pervading 
themes in Canadian literature, collectively entitled Survival, re- 
volve around a thesis concerning animals and the ways they are 
presented in Canadian writing. And her own poetry and fiction 
present a multitude of animals of diverse generic and aesthetic 
kinds: herons and loons, bulls and pigs, pickerel and eels, wolves 
and cats. Some of these are, as one would guess, situated in the 
bush, or at least the country; others are found in metropolitan 
zoos (zoos are very much apart of the worlds Atwood creates as 
well as the one she observes). Some of Atwood's animals can be 
found only in museums, where human hands construct imitation 
animals, following the hints and traces of fossils, out of bones and 
bits of fur. (Such a museum, filled with dinosaurs, provides the 
central image of Atwood's novel Life Before Man. ) Frequently, in 
fact, bones and bits of fur appear in Atwood's works in their unre- 
deemed, fragmented forms. And there are other breathless ani- 
mals as well, some built out of wood or carved in it, some painted 
on boards or rocks. Some of these crafted animals have the height- 
ened aura of the sacred or mythical about them, while others seem 
sad imitations of living things, or parodies of them, such as the 
dead minnow encased in plastic, designed as fisherman's bait, in 
the novel Surfacing. Now and then Atwood includes an animal 
from the everyday domestic world, a cat, for example. 

All in all, taken together, the animals of Atwood's art consti- 
tute a veritable Noah's ark in several respects: (i) They represent a 
large assortment of living animal kinds. (2) More interestingly, 
they represent life on different levels of being — from, for exam- 
ple, the most mundane or physical level to the most spiritual or 
abstract, in timeless aesthetic forms or in materials and shapes 
that stress the vulnerability of all mortal things. (3) Some of these 
animal images function to say something about themselves or na- 
ture; others serve primarily as figures of speech through which 
Atwood reveals the nature of humankind. The best animal images 
remind us of the integrity of both animals and humans and the 
necessary interdependence of the two. 

Of Atwood's works. Surfacing, which George Gait has called "a 
huge thin novel" (p. 54), harbors the most animals of the most dif- 



Real and Imaginary Animals 165 

ferent kinds. Of Atwood's six other published novels. Life Before 
Man comes next in number ofreferences to animals, but these an- 
imals are predominantly of but one kind — the prehistoric replicas 
in the museum of natural history. Though there are many similar- 
ities or parallels between these two novels, their overall auras or 
atmospheres ultimately may be as different as the animals that in- 
habit them. Within the canon of Atwood's ten volumes of poetry 
on the other hand, .there are animals of all the kinds I have men- 
tioned; in this essay I shall focus upon them. 

A cat appears in a transitional poem, "There Is Only One of 
Everything" {Tou Are Happy, 1974). And if Gayle Wood is right, 
this cat, right out of somebody's kitchen, represents a shift in a 
body of poetry that starts out but vaguely indicating the factual 
bases of emotional landscapes or conditions and ends up dealing 
in particulars. 

Not a tree but the tree 

We saw, it will never exist, split by the wind 

and bending down 
like that again. What will push out of the earth 

later, making it summer, will not be 
grass, leaves, repetition, there will 
have to be other words. When my 

eyes close language vanishes. The cat 

with the divided face, half black half orange 

nest in my scruffy fur coat, I drink tea, 

fingers curved around the cup, impossible 
to duplicate these flavours. . . ? 

This poem does seem a celebration of the ordinary particular (if 
there can be such a thing) to a degree rare in Atwood. The con- 
cern, however, for the tree, the tea, the cat, and, in the latter half of 
the poem, for the person outside the self, coming to be known by 
the self through a medium other than words, is common in the 
poems — though the sense in this poem of something approach- 
ing unity between the self and the other is not. 

One of the simplest and most moving expressions of Atwood's 
concern for lives outside the single, human self is in poems depict- 
ing the victimization of animals. As Atwood — in Survival — and 
other critics have said, this is a favorite subject in Canadian litera- 



i66 Kathleen Vqgt 

ture, where it is handled from the animal's point of view, indicat- 
ing human identification with the animal (Atwood, "Animal Vic- 
tims"; Polk). Here is Atwood's Brian the Still-Hunter in the poem 
bearing his name, speaking of his occupation: 

I kill because I have to 

but every time I aim, I feel 

my skin grow fur 

my head heavy with antlers 

and during the stretched instant 

the bullet glides on its thread of speed 

my soul runs innocent as hooves. 

Is God just to his creatures? 

I die more often than many. 

{The Journals of Susanna Moodie, 1970, SP, p. 99) 



The world is not full of persons with Brian's sensibilities, how- 
ever, as Atwood knows too well. As she say in the title poem of 
one of her early volumes, "The Animals in That Country" (1968): 

In that country the animals 
have the faces of people: 

the ceremonial 

cats possessing the streets 

the fox run 

politely to earth, the huntsmen 
standing around him, fixed 
in their tapestry of manners 

the bull, embroidered 

with blood and given 

an elegant death, trumpets, his name 

stamped on him, heraldic brand 

because 

(when he rolled 

on the sand, sword in his heart, the teeth 

in his blue mouth were human) 

he is really a man 



Real and Ima£[inary Animals 167 

even the wolves, holding resonant 
conversations in their 
forests thickened with legend. 

In this country the animals 
have the faces of 
animals. 

Their eyes 

flash once in car headlights 

and are gone. 

Their deaths are not elegant. 

They have the faces of 

no-one. (SP, pp. 48-49) 

In other poems animals are treated as no-ones. "Dreams of the 
Animals" reveals this in terms reminiscent of the Victorian zoo 
with which my essay began: 

Mostly the animals dream 
of other animals each 
according to its kind 

(though certain mice and small rodents 
have nightmares of a huge pink 
shape with five claws descending) 

: moles dream of darkness and delicate 
mole smells 

frogs dream of green and golden 

frogs 

sparkling like wet suns 

among the lilies 

red and black 

striped fish, their eyes open 

have red and black striped 

dreams defence, attack, meaningful 

patterns 

birds dream of territories 
enclosed by singing. 

Sometimes the animals dream of evil 
in the form of soap and metal 



i68 Kathleen Vo0t 

but mostly the animals dream 
Of other animals. 

There are exceptions: 

the silver fox in the roadside zoo 

dreams of digging out 

and of baby foxes, their necks bitten 

the caged armadillo 

near the train 

station, which runs 

all day in figure eights 

its piglet feet pattering 

no longer dreams 

but is insane when waking; 

the iguana 

in the petshop window on St. Catherine Street 

crested, royal-eyed, ruling 

its kingdom of water-dish and sawdust 

dreams of sawdust. 

{Procedures for Underground, 1970; SP, pp. 123-24) 

When animals are but objects, it seems people are similarly re- 
duced. They become valued according to the limited, separable 
functions they serve; they are defined or define themselves in 
terms that are technical and abstract and mock life. Or so Atwood 
says, mockingly, in the poem that begins: 

You want to go back 

to where the sky was inside us 

animals ran through us, our hands 
blessed and killed according to our 
wisdom, death 
made real blood come out 

But face it, we have been 

improved, our heads float 

several inches above our necks 

moored to us by 

rubber tubes and filled with 

clever bubbles. . . . {Power Politics, 1971; SP, p. 148) 



Real and Imaginary Animals 169 

In a companion poem Atwood writes: 

In view of the fading animals 
the proliferation of sewers and fears 
the sea clogging, the air 
nearing extinction 

we should be kind, we should 

take warning, we should forgive each other 

Instead we are opposite, we 
touch as though attacking, 

The gifts we bring 
even in good faith maybe 
warp in our hands to 
implements, to manoeuvres 

("They are hostile nations," Power Politics; SP, p. 161) 

In the poems, the abuse of animals, or the loss of contact with 
them, represents the denial of the significance of anything outside 
the isolate individual's will or mind. 

In some poems, such as those just quoted, animals and atti- 
tudes toward animals are not depicted or dramatized in them- 
selves, having instead become reference points for Atwood's 
description of sterility of human life. In other poems, references 
to the animal world are obvious metaphors for what humans do 
to one another. Here, for example, is the tiny epigraph poem from 
Power Politics: "you fit into me / like a hook into an eye / a fish 
hook /an open eye." And in Ton Are Happy there is a powerful set 
of poems called "Songs of the Transformed," which are fashioned 
from the point of view of animals, although these animals fre- 
quently sound very much like men, or women, speaking (see, for 
example, "Pig Song," "Bull Song," "Rat Song.") In this group of 
poems one is invited to see both animals and humans when re- 
sponding to the imagery, though within the entirety of the set, the 
animals range in signifying power from symbolic to allegorical 
and are seldom, if ever, presented naturalistically. 

That the theme of victimization has a certain breadth or scope 
we have already seen, insofar as it depicts humans both in relation 
to animals and in relation to each other, including their own 
selves. The pattern victimization takes is not always one of 
"power politics," however, or of the imposition of human will on 



I70 Kathleen Vq0t 

other beings. Indeed, while some persons in Atwood deny any dy- 
namics between self and other by caging armadillos and causing 
them to go mad, others seem overtaken by animal selves, imagin- 
ing that they have become deer, foxes, or wolves, and in doing so, 
revealing their own madness. Brian the Still-Hunter's mental 
state is close to this, and there seems no doubt about the madness 
in "Arctic Syndrome: dream fox." (The arctic syndrome is, as 
Atwood herself explains in an inter\'iew with Karla Hammond, 
"the name of a specific kind of madness, that occurs only north of 
the arctic circle in which the person becomes a fox or a wolf [p. 
28]). Perhaps the pioneer Susanna Moodie is reporting a narrow 
escape, when in one of the sequence of poems in which Atwood 
dramatizes the experiences Moodie recorded in her journals, 
Susanna says: 

I, who had been erased 
by fire, was crept in 
upon by green 

(how 
lucid a season) 

In time the animals 
arrived to inhabit me. . . . 

But by the poem's end, she is making her departure from the bush: 

The sleigh was a relief; 
its track lengthened behind, 
pushing me towards the city 

and rounding the first hill, I was 

(instantaneous) 

unlived in: they had gone. 

There was something they almost taught me 
I cam away not having learned. 

(The Journals of Susanna Moodie; SP, pp. 92-93) 

In an earlier poem, "Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer," the 
Explorer-settler does not escape: 

Things 

reftised to name themselves; refused 

to let him name them. 



i 



Real and Imapiinary Animals 171 

The wolves hunted 
outside. 

On his beaches, his clearings, 
by the surf of under- 
growth breaking 
at his feet, he foresaw 
disintegration 

and in the end 
through eyes 
made ragged by his 
effort, the tension 
between subject and object, 

the green 

vision, the unnamed 

whale invaded. {The Animals in That Country; SP, p. 63) 

What has really happened here to Brian, Susanna, and our 
nameless pioneer.^ Did a hostile wilderness subdue, or almost sub- 
due, human consciousness? Or was human consciousness flawed 
from the beginning by an inability to perceive and accept a truly 
subjective-objective world? 

In Atwood's poems the theme of victimization is part of a 
larger concern with identity. Victimization is one scene in a tapes- 
try showing an individual in relation to a multitude of 
elements — rocks, mountains, trees, grass, animals, and people — 
sharing the space of existence. Moreover, the tapestry takes into 
account the temporal as well as spatial dimension of existence, 
and this complicates things immensely. Although some charac- 
ters in the poems perceive the world in the form of separate, static 
objects in a given place,^ it is clear to Atwood and the reader that 
both the perceiver and the perceived are constantly moving, 
changing, and disappearing. Atwood's animals remind us of this 
world of process and of the artist's efforts to acknowledge and yet 
transcend that aspect of the process that is death. 

In one of the first poems she published, Atwood writes: 

Love, you must choose 
Between two immortalities: 
One of earth, lake, trees 
Feathers of a nameless bird 
The other of a world of glass. 



172 Kathleen Vo£ft 

Hard marble, carven wood. 

("Her Song," Double Persephone, 1961, p. 13)- 

But she does not choose, or rather her real choices are not quite so 
pure or simplistic as this poem impHes. As Frank Davey points out 
in his fine essay, "Atwood's Gorgon Touch," at the center of 
Arvvood's poems is a tension between what Davey describes as 
"the static, the mythological, or the sculptural and the kinetic, the 
actual, or the temporal" (p. 1-2). Moreover, as an artist — as 
Davey savs — the poet is necessarily committed to glass, or at least 
the word, even though she or he may insist, as Arwood does, on 
the greater realit>' and appeal of the tangible, with its inevitable 
and irremediable resistance to what humans would make of it or 
have it be. 

A "dead dog" helps Atwood express the power of the actual and 
her relation to it in "The Double Voice," a poem about two ways 
of seeing and writing: 

Two voices 

took turns using my eyes: 

One had manners, 
painted in watercolours, 
used hush tones when speaking 
of mountains or Niagara Falls, 



The other voice 
had other knowledge: 
that men sweat 
always and drink often, 
that pigs are pigs 
but must be eaten 
anway. . . . 

One saw through my 
bleared and gradually 
bleaching eyes, red leaves, 
the rituals of seasons and rivers 



The other found a dead dog 
jubilant with maggots 
half-buried among the sweet peas. 

{The Journals of Susanna Aloodie; SP, p. 104). 



Real and Ima£[inary A nimals 1 73 

"Bones and bits of fur" represent her commitment at the end of 
"Comic Books vs. History," a poem in which she explores pseudo- 
realities associated with "your country" (the United States) and 
their collapse for her. The poem ends: "I turn back, search / for 
the actual, collect lost / bones, burnt logs / of campfires, pieces 
of fur" {Procedures for Under^fround; SP, pp. 128-29). And it is no 
exaggeration to say bones and bits of fur are everywhere in 
Atwood as talismen of lives terminated or fragmented by time, 
even as whole animals in cages are present to suggest spatial 
isolation. 

But there are other kinds of dead animals in the poetry too, and 
some are images of the transcendence of barriers between beings, 
and between being and nonbeing itself. The faces or bodies on In- 
dian totems or Eskimo animal sculptures are examples subject to 
Atwood's contemplation in an early poem entitled "Some Ob- 
jects of Wood and Stone." Here the "carved animals," with which 
the poem concludes, if not exactly transcendent, do seem media- 
tors between self and other, the physical and spiritual, and the life- 
less and living: 

The small carved 

animal is passed from 

hand to hand 

around the circle 

until the stone grows warm 

touching, the hands do not know 
the form of animal 
which was made or 
the true form of stone 
uncovered 

and the hands, the fingers the 

hidden small bones 

of the hands bend to hold the shape, 

shape themselves, grow 

cold with the stone's cold, grow 

also animal, exchange 

until the skin wonders 

if stone is human 

In the darkness later 
and even when the animal 



174 Kathleen Vo£ft 

has gone, they keep 

the image of that inner shape 

hands holding warm 
hands holding 
the half-formed air 

{The Circle Game, 1966; SP, pp. 33-34) 

The carved animals are less conclusive in projecting a state of 
unity, however, than the totems Atwood describes in "Fishing for 
Eel Totems": 

The string jumped, 

I hooked a martian / it poured 

fluid silver out of the river 

its long body whipped on the grass, reciting 
all the letters of its alphabet. 

Killed, it was a 

grey tongue hanged silent in the smokehouse 

which we later ate. 

After that I could see 

for a time in the green country; 

I learned that the earliest language 
was not our syntax of chained pebbles 

but liquid, made 

by the first tribes, the fish 

people. {Procedures for Underground; SP; p. 137) 

In this poem the living body of the eel, rather than an artistic rep- 
lica, proclaims its reality, and somehow goes on proclaiming it 
after it is killed and devoured; indeed this act of eating is a sacra- 
mental communion. 

Not many dead eels are sacramental fodder in Atwood, how- 
ever. More frequently they remain bodies, signifying life lost. 
Sometimes, as in the case of the dead dog nourishing maggots, 
they are shown in the process of decay; more often they are repre- 
sented at a remove from energy of any sort. They are the bones of 
"A Night in the Royal Ontario Museum" which appear to the 
speaker-narrator as apocalyptic reminders of nothingness: 



Real and Ima£[inary A nimals 1 75 

... I am dragged to the mind's 
deadend, the roar of the bone- 
yard, I am lost 
among the mastodons 
and beyond: a fossil 
shell, then 

samples of rocks 

and minerals, even the thundering 
tusks swindling to pin- 
points in the stellar 
fluorescent-lighted 
wastes of geology. 

{The Animals in That Country, pp. 20-21) 

In some poems, this museum piece for one, Atwood portrays 
animal bones in the arrangements humankind has made of them 
so as to create replicas of past life. (This activity occurs and recurs 
in the novels.) In other poems, as we have seen, the reconstruc- 
tion involves the sculptor's carvings or the poet's words; often 
those words are found wanting. "Song of the Hen's Head" offers 
one example; though it is one in the set of poems "Songs of the 
Transformed," to which I referred earlier, here no transformation 
has occurred. Indeed, according to this hen, words are murderers 
rather than creators or perpetuators of life: 

After the abrupt collision 

with the blade, the Word, 

I rest on the wood 

block, my eyes 

drawn back into their blue transparent 

shells like molluscs; 

I contemplate the Word 

while the rest of me 

which was never much under 

my control, which was always 

inarticulate, still runs 

at random through the grass, a plea 

for mercy, a single 

flopping breast. 



176 Kathleen Vqgt 

muttering about life 

in its thickening red voice. 

{Tou Are Happy; SP, pp. 197-98) 

The whole idea of transformation, transmutation, or metamor- 
phosis, which is central to the movement of many of Atwood's 
poems and in its positive phases seems to promise a kind of 
Yeatsian unity of beings, becomes less and less possible, in tran- 
scendent forms at least, as her poems progress. In "Digging" {Tou 
Are Happy, pp. 181-82) Atwood writes of the "archeology of ma- 
nure," suggesting this is what past life may amount to: 

Witness this stained bone: pelvis 

of some rodent, thrown or dragged here. 



I will wear it on a chain 

around my neck: an amulet 

to ward off anything that is not a fact, 

that is not food, including 

symbols, monuments, 

forgiveness, treaties, love. 



In "Siren Song," the Siren says: 

Shall I tell you the secret [the song that will work] 
and if I do, will you get me 
out of this bird suit? 

I don't enjoy it here 

squatting on this island 

looking picturesque and mythical (SP, pp. 195-96). 

In another poem from Tou Are Happy, the narrator declares: 

Men with the heads of eagles 
no longer interest me 
or pig-men, or those who can fly 
with the aid of wax and feathers 



I search instead for the others, 

the ones left over, 

the ones who have escaped from these 

mythologies with barely their lives; 



Real and Imajjinary Animals 177 

they have real faces and hands, they think 

of themselves as 
wrong somehow, they would rather be trees. (SP, p. 202) 

In these poems metamorphosis is merely disguise; mythology, 
merely embroidery; "men with the heads of eagles" are one brand 
of role player and would-be manipulators. 

By the volume Two-Headed Poems (1978) all the totems that ap- 
pear true to the lives they symbolize are of the eel kind, rather than 
the car\'ed kind. The earth in the form man discovers it seems its 
own potter in "April, Radio, Planting, Easter": 

I do not mean the earth, I mean the 

earth that is here and browns your 

feet, thickens your fingers, 

unfurls in your brain and in 

these onion seedlings 

I set in flats lovingly under 

a spare window. 

We do not walk on the earth 

but in it, wading 

in that acid sea 

where flesh is etched from 

molten bone and re-forms. 

In this massive tide 

warm as liquid 

sun, all waves are one 

wave; there is no other. {Two-Headed Poems, pp. 95-96) 

The bread of communion is the bread baked in the kitchen; it is a 
part of the processes of nature, which include death and life. 
These processes are a kind of sacrament in "All Bread": 

All bread is made of wood, 

cow dung, packed brown moss, 

the bodies of dead animals, the teeth 

and backbones, what is left 

after the ravens. This dirt 

flows through the stems into the grain, 

into the arm, nine strokes 

of the axe, skin from a tree, 

good water which is the first 



178 Kathleen Vo£it 

gift, four hours. 

Live burial under a moist cloth, 
a silver dish, the row 
of white famine bellies 
swollen and taut in the oven, 
lungfuls of warm breath stopped 
in the heat from an old sun. 

Good bread has the salt taste 

of your hands after nine 

strokes of the axe, the salt 

taste of your mouth, it smells 

of its own small death, of the deaths 

before and after. 

Lift these ashes 

into your mouth, your blood; 

to know what you devour 

is to consecrate it, 

almost. All bread must be broken 

so it can be shared. Together 

we eat this earth. {Two-Headed Poems, p. 107) 

There are animals in these and other Two-Headed Poems. Some 
are in the form of bodies and bones, flesh gone back to earth. One 
in "April, Radio, Planting, Easter" is but a way of saying some- 
thing about the battering man takes from the radio: 

there's a limit to how much 

you can take of this battering 

against the ears without imploding 

like some land animal drifting down 

into the blackout of ocean, its body 

an eye crushed by pliers. {Two-Headed Poems, p. 95) 

But there's a hawk in "Marsh, Hawk" (pp. 87-88), which, as it 
soars up from the marsh, against the sky, seems in the figure it 
casts a kind of revelation of what a right relation with the universe 
might be — free, a part of the whole, one with it. And in "The Pup- 
pet of the Wolf (pp. 99-100) there is the wolf the narrator makes 
out of her hand to amuse her child in the bathtub. There is no 
wolf, not even a puppet, yet the wolf is there at the call of the im- 
agination of the mother and child. 



R£al and Imaginary A nimals 1 79 

In her poetry Atwood seems to grow more suspicious of beauty 
of the glass or carved kind and more insistent upon acknowledg- 
ing birds with real feathers on them. She seems by Two- Headed 
Poems to be seeking immortality in the shapes and materials and 
movements of the things of this world, and the tone of these 
poems suggests she sometimes finds it. In this volume her animal 
images are, however, surprisingly less frequent; and when they 
come they are less charged with symbolic significance than many 
of the earlier references, which may not be surprising at all. How 
ideological as opposed to imagistic are some of the earlier images, 
I find myself wondering? Although all of them are bound up with 
Atwood's insistence that our space is a shared space in which trees, 
sky, hawks, and humankind exist at once, do some of the words 
signifying animals, for example, have little or nothing to do with 
calling those animals before our eyes and into our presence? Is the 
very nature of art, including Atwood's, as Davey suggests, such as 
to substitute glass or carved animals for real ones, even though to 
be glass or under glass is to be dead, a part of a Victorian zoo? 

Annis Pratt, in a 1972 essay in Contemporary Literature entitled 
"Women and Nature in Modern Fiction," does not deal with 
Atwood but makes some points about imagery that certainly 
could be applied to her work. In discussing how images may relate 
to the concrete objects they name, Pratt compares and contrasts 
Sarah Orne Jewett's presentation of natural objects with Joyce's, 
or Joyce's via Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a 
Touri0 Man. Pratt discovers, for example, that when Stephen sees 
the vision of a girl who at one moment appears to him in "the like- 
ness of a strange and beautiful seabird," he is regarding both the 
girl and the bird as signs, portents, symbols of inner essences or 
states. She contrasts this with the way Sylvia, Jewett's protagonist 
in "A White Heron," sees birds. Sylvia "experiences her epiphany, 
a dazzling dawn vision of hawks, sun, heron, and ocean, when she 
climbs an enormous pine tree to look for the heron's nest." This 
epiphany leads her to deflect a young male hunter friend from his 
would-be prey, for in Sylvia's vision "a heron is a heron, valuable 
for its heronness, a vehicle only of its own particularity and what 
she perceives as the freedom of the self in nature in contrast to ca- 
nine servitude." Pratt concludes: "Where Sylvia's naturistic 
epiphany led her to a heightened perception of existence, Stephen 
perceives natural objects as vehicles for conceiving an essence." 



i8o Kathleen Vqgt 

"If a symbol is a metaphor," Pratt states, "one half of which is con- 
crete and the other half of which indicates something abstract, 
Stephen's hawk is nearly all symbol while Sylvia's is nearly all 
hawk" (pp. 478-80). 

I suspect that Atwood has more than a little of Stephen in her 
but that she prefers Sylvia."* As I look back on the animal images of 
the poems, in any case, I see similes and metaphors in which ani- 
mals function only to establish something about how humans are 
functioning (the land animal from "April, Radio" is one exam- 
ple.) I see images of animals that express the relations peculiar to 
human lovers. One poem, for example, in which the speaker 
warns her mate that her hunger for him threatens to consume him 
utterly, ends: "There is no reason for this, only / a starved dog's 
logic about bones." ("More and More," The Animals in That 
Country; SP, p. 74). Another poem, in which lovers touch but do 
not love, reads in part: 

What is it, it does not 

move like love, it does 

not want to know, it 

does not want to stroke, unfold 

it does not even want to 
touch, it is more like 
an animal (not 
loving) a 

thing trapped, you move 
wounded, you are hurt, you hurt, 
you want to get out, you want 
to tear yourself out, I am 

the outside. {Power Politics; SP, p. 166) 



The "dead dog / jubilant with maggots," which I've previously 
cited, probably serves primarily as a warning that we are flesh and 
that life and death are one, but we see the dog's body before re- 
sponding to the concept. And while the birds who dream of "terri- 
tories / enclosed by singing" may seem a little too romantic to be 
compelling, "the iguana in the petshop window on St. Catherine 
Street / crested, / royal-eyed, / ruling its kingdom of waterdish 
and sawdust" certainly draws us there, full of the desire to free it. 
Early and late there are animal animals in Atwood's poems as 



Real and Ima£iin(iry Animals i8i 

well as animals who serve metaphorically for humans. And some- 
times the most compelling animals are of the carved variety — in a 
sense, of course, all of the beings who appear in the poems are, as 
art, carved by human hands — just as sometimes the poems de- 
clare that having a fox or iguana in front of the naked eye is no 
guarantee the beholder will acknowledge the animal's existence 
in any way that goes beyond sheer sight. Some animals are 
wooden in that tbey do not call us to the givens of the earth but to 
human contrivances instead; other times wooden animals evoke 
or give rise to the real. 

As a poet, finally, Atwood is, I think, a bit like the protagonist 
oi Surfacin£f, who at a climactic moment in the novel observes: 



From the lake a fish jumps 

An idea of a fish jumps 

A fish jumps, carved wooden fish with dots painted on the sides, no, 
antlered fish thing drawn in red on cliffstone, protecting spirit. It hangs 
in the air suspended, flesh turned to icon, he has changed again, returned 
to the water. How many shapes can he take. 

I watch it for an hour or so; then it drops and softens, the circles wide, it 
becomes an ordinary fish again, (p. 219) 



In the nameless protagonist's awareness — represented in her 
changing vision of the fish — that life includes all levels of being 
and all ways of knowing them, there is an affirmation both of the 
reality and significance of the human self as perceiver and creator 
and of the other, as well as of the inextricable relationship be- 
tween the two. 

In her own art Atwood may be going a step beyond the zoo 
keepers she refers to in the conclusion of her report on the 
Toronto zoo, with which I began: 



Why do we do it? Why does mankind construct zoos at all, why do 
human beings lavish enormous amounts of money, time, and expertise 
on preserving and peering at creatures that other human beings are just as 
busy hunting, killing, skinning, stuffing for trophies and eating? Perhaps, 
it's the insatiable curiosity of homo sapiens, a generic curiosity that's re- 
flected by his cousins staring back at him from the primate enclosures. Or 
perhaps, the zoo is finally a work of art, a symbol, an attempt to create a 
healing vision of an Eden-like Peaceable Kingdom, to preserve in artificial 
form a time when men and animals lived in a more balanced harmony 



1 82 Kathleen Vq0t 

than they share now, a time before the big-headed monkeys invented agri- 
culture and began to crowd the earth, (p. 71) 

Atwood's own zoo suggests that there is no healing or health in 
a world without animals or where animals are treated like ob- 
jects,^ and that there can be joy in the land where animals and 
humans meet. In some of the later poems as well as in Surfacin0 
that land appears. 

Notes 

1. Atwood, "Don't Expect the Bears to Dance," p. 68. Atwood's essay 
is cited in George Woodcock's "Transformation Mask for Margaret 
Atwood," in which Woodcock points to Atwood's deep and pervasive in- 
terest in animals. 

2. Selected Poems (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), p. 236. Except 
for poems from Double Persephone and Two-Headed Poems and "A Night 
in the Royal Ontario Museum," I have used the Simon and Schuster Se- 
lected Poems — here abbreviated as SP — for the texts of the poems appear- 
ing in this essay. Page references for individual volumes of poetry are to 
the American editions; references for Surfacin0 are to the Popular Library 
edition (New York, 1972). 

3. The most ironic instance of this comes in the poem "Solipsism 
While Dying," in The Journals of Susanna Moodie, where the dying 
speaker wonders what all the elements of the world will do now "that I, 
that all / depending on me disappears" {SP p. no). 

4. In an essay on Atwood's poetry, lohn Wilson Foster compares 
Atwood's animal imagery with the "heraldic stylism" of Indian totem 
carvers. He states: "We could even argue that the stylistic metamorphoses 
with which we are familiar in poetry — metaphor, simile and person- 
ification — are in Atwood's poetry derived as much from a totemic aware- 
ness as from poetic convention" (p. 17). 

5. Donna Gerstenberger offers excellent insights into Atwood's under- 
standing of "the total perversion of all life, including the sexual, made 
possible by the oppressive vision of the world as object" (p. 146). 



13 Shamanism in the Works 
ofMar0aret Atwood 

Kathryn VanSpanckeren 



While agreeing on Atwood's mysterious quality of 
"otherness," critics have differed widely in describing it. It has 
been linked with genres such as Gothic (Rosowski; Northey), ro- 
mance (McLay), the ghost story (Garebian), and the fairy tale 
(MacLulich). The intense, spiritual quality of Atwood's work has 
also suggested the spiritual quest (Christ), the rite of passage 
(Ross), the feminine "rebirth journey" (Pratt, ''Surfacing and the 
Rebirth Journey"; Rigney), magic (Rogers; Van Spanckeren), 
witchcraft (Davey, "Atwood's Gorgon Touch"), and the vocation 
of the seer (Davidson and Davidson, "Margaret Atwood's Lady 
Oracle^''; Brown). It has been called "primitivism" (Hinz) and 
linked with transformation (Jones) and even extraterrestrial expe- 
rience (Glickson). Shamanism has been most often used as a loose 
term, mainly to describe the novel Surfacing (Ross). Marie- 
Frangois Guedon, while defining shamanism carefully, limits her- 
self to analysis of that novel. The present essay, however, suggests 
that an archaic, shamanic vision runs throughout Atwood's writ- 
ings in all genres, from her earliest to her most recent work, that it 
accounts for the sense of "otherness" in her work, and that it is a 
vital and defining source of her power as a writer. Whether or not 
Atwood consciously adopts a shamanic stance, how her reading 
affects her work, and the extent to which the shamanic themes, 
images, and structures permeating her work may be attributed to 
a Jungian collective unconscious are subjects for other papers. 
The present essay merely attempts to establish shamanism as a pri- 
mary mode in Atwood. 



183 



1 84 Kathryn VanSpanckeren 

The shamanic mode may be seen as the archaic underpinning of 
the more elaborated genres tapping the "other," such as, to take 
one example, the tradition of Canadian Gothic discussed by 
Margot Northey in The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Gro- 
tesque in Canadian Fiction. Significantly, Atwood herself defines 
the Gothic shamanistically, not in terms we recognize from Mrs. 
Radcliffe's novels or Jane Eyre. Despite Lady Oracle's govern- 
esses, escapes, seductions, mazes, and gloomy old mansions, 
Atwood has written that the defining feature of Gothic is an over- 
riding awareness of death. Just as an orientation to death is the 
psychological and ontological cornerstone of shamanism (Eli- 
ade. Shamanism, pp. 508-11), the centrality of death is also the 
dominant theme or figure in Atwood's works as a whole. 

Considerations of space do not permit a lengthy analysis of sha- 
manism; this essay offers what are admittedly generalizations 
about an exceedingly complex and varied system. Further, shaman- 
ism, by its very nature, resists categorization, because it has no 
dogma. Unlike organized religions, sometimes called "higher spir- 
itual systems" — in a phrase that should be rejected, as it implies a 
devaluation of pretechnological and preliterate spiritual systems — 
shamanism, like Zen, is a practice, not a creed. Shamanic practice is 
in its very essence a "technique of ecstasy," in Eliade's phrase: de- 
spite its mediating function between spirits and community, it is a 
private, ineffable, spiritual experience. It varies not only between 
tribes, but between individuals of the same tribe. With these con- 
siderations in mind, a general definition of shamanism may be ven- 
tured (readers desiring fuller information are referred to the Works 
Cited section of the present volume). 

Like the individual on a quest in other mythological systems , 
the tribal shaman, who may be male or female, undergoes an initi- 
ation that roughly follows the stages that Joseph Campbell has 
popularized as the monomyth, and that structures the journeys to 
rebirth we see in Atwood's works. The shaman's vocation consists 
of a series of recurring monomyths, or quests into the spirit realm. 
The initiation and subsequent spirit journeys generally follow the 
familiar pattern of the call, withdrawal and preparation, the meet- 
ing with helpers (tutelary spirits or animals, ghosts of dead ances- 
tors or dead shamans), a movement across the threshold, a 
dramatic descent to the underworld or a magic flight, a direct con- 
frontation with the spirits, a gaining of effective spiritual power 



Shamanism in the Works of Mar0aret Atwood 185 

and knowledge, and a return to the living. This initiation often is 
modeled on funerary rites (Eliade, Shamanism, p. 309)- The most 
frequent condition the shaman is called upon to treat is the loss of 
the soul, often caused by a broken tabu. Bad fortune and sickness 
are imagined not as physical diseases, but as psycho-spiritual con- 
ditions. As Levi-Strauss, Kirby, LaBarre, and others point out, 
shamans are psychiatrists as much as they are doctors or priests. 

Vivid, personal.experience of the spiritual realm is the center of 
the shamanic vocation. Though shamans may make their spiritual 
journeys differently — asleep or in waking trance, intentionally or 
spontaneously, for profit or for free, with or without certain 
props or rituals — depending on the culture and the individual, 
they always make contact with the spirit world. As Jaynes (pp. 
201-3), Eliade, and others make clear, the spirit realm is in fact 
and origin the realm of the dead. Eliade reveals the logical correla- 
tive: shamans must be, in some sense, dead themselves in order to 
receive the teachings of the spirits, who are imagined as knowing 
everything. Shamans attain a state transcending ordinary life and 
death, in which they can interact with spirits only the dead 
(ghosts, ancestors) themselves can give shamans the gift of be- 
coming seers (Eliade, Shamanism, p. 84-88). 

The poetic narration of quests to the spirit realm of death is a 
defining feature of shamanism (Kirby, Schechner). Ritual 
songs and chants, usually accompanied by percussion (a drum 
in Amerindian tradition and Siberian Asia, gongs in South 
Asia) suggest the collision of two planes and their release into 
invisible sonic spirit energy (Lansing; Eliade, Shamanism, p. 
173). The poem-songs of shamanism are magically efficacious 
in the journey: they are the journey as the shaman narrates it, 
dramatizing it to an audience. Some songs may be learned in 
the course of the psychic journey. The evocation of the Great 
Goddess as archaic embodiment of nature is also a dominant 
shamanistic element (Graves, White Goddess; Schafer) that has 
entered into our Gnostic and Kabbalistic traditions (Scholem; 
Pagels). 

Despite the wide provenance of shamanism from the Siberian 
stretches of Europe and Asia to the American Arctic and from 
tropical Indonesia and New Guinea to aboriginal peoples of 
South America, a stable set of images appears. These images go 
back at least twenty-five thousand years in Europe, as seen in Pa- 



1 86 Kathryn VanSpanckeren 

leolithic cave paintings. This set, or "alphabet," of shamanism is 
based on primal physical realities available to all humans, what- 
ever their stage of technology or culture. In fact, the image al- 
phabet of shamanism is clearest, because most often experi- 
enced, to aboriginal, pretechnological peoples, for whom ani- 
mals, graves, bones, teeth, plants and trees, rocks, and the ele- 
ments of fire, air, earth, and water — primary letters of the sha- 
manic alphabet — are everyday parts of life. Especially frequent 
are mirrors and (reflecting) bodies of water, which suggest a range 
of reflexive notions such as identity, death, and rebirth by bap- 
tism into a new self. 

Shamanism is, in Eliade's phrase, "pastoral spirituality," a natu- 
ral religion or spiritual expression of oneness with nature. As tech- 
nological societies become increasingly alienated from the ani- 
mistic pastoral spirituality that has sustained human cultures for 
millenia, their artists have compensated by restoring the archaic 
to its centrality. Poets and artists have been quickest to respond to 
the leaching away of primary experiences — the loss of trees, ani- 
mals, fire, water — in our direct experience and our emotional 
lives. Modernism as a whole was deeply influenced by the discov- 
ery of primitive art: Tzara, for example, relates how it animated 
surrealism (pp. 301-2); Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and Picasso's 
Demoiselles d' Avignon are other familiar examples. As Gary Snyder 
writes: 



Poetry must sing from authentic experience. Of all the streams of civil- 
ized tradition with roots in the Paleolithic, poetry is one of the few that 
can realistically claim an unchanged function and a relevance which will 
outlast most of the activities that surround us today. Poets, as few others, 
must live close to the world that primitive men are in: the world, in its na- 
kedness, which is fundamental for us ail — birth, love, death; the sheer 
fact of being alive, (pp. 1 17-18) 



For at least twenty years shamanism has been a watchword and 
touchstone for poets and artists from the Americas and Europe, 
who often aspire to the condition of shaman in order to heal a 
contemporary society seen as suffering as "loss of soul." Individ- 
ual American poets like David Antin, Jackson MacLow, Jerome 
Rothenberg, Nathaniel Tarn, Armand Schwerner, Clayton 
Eshleman, Gary Snyder, and Michael McClure have adapted and 



Shamanism in the Works of Margaret Atwood 187 

performed shamanic pieces or written new works inspired by the 
shamanic tradition; Lucy Lippard notes the same return to the ar- 
chaic in contemporary visual arts. Contemporary surrealism uses 
the shamanic alphabet of bones, water, and fire and a range of 
verbs suggesting the workings of the elements — "dissolve," "fly," 
"float," "burn," and so on — as can be seen in the works of Robert 
Merwin, Charles Simic, James Wright, and Robert BIy, whose 
masks forcibly convey a shamanic presence in his readings. An- 
thologies such as Jerome Rothenberg's Technicians of the Sacred 
and Symposium of the Whole and magazines like Alcherin^ia, lo, 
Caterpillar, New Wilderness Letter, and Sulfur are expressions of 
the intense recent interest in shamanism and archaic poetic tradi- 
tions. In the scholarly arena, of course, the great theoreticians 
have been Mircea Eliade, whose book Shamanism: Archaic Tech- 
niques of Ecstasy remains the bible of comparative scholarship, and 
Levi-Strauss, who goes beyond Eliade in his Tristes Tropiques to 
suggest that a new poetic wisdom based on archaic values can re- 
store psychic unity to fragmented technological Western cul- 
tures. The anthropologist most closely associated with upholding 
"primitive" (or primary, archaic) values is Stanley Diamond. The 
main assumptions of my discussion follow the work of Eliade, 
Levi-Strauss, and Diamond. 

In the remainder of this essay I focus especially on themes and 
images found particularly among Native American, especially 
North Canadian, peoples. Judging from her work, and my own 
talks with her, Atwood is familiar with the rich and complex 
forms of shamanism found among Amerindian tribes in Canada. 
Themes such as the journey into death by descent to the spirit 
world, magical vision, the Canadian version of the Great Goddess 
(the Lady of Beasts), the world underwater, and pools and mir- 
rors recur in her writing, as does the shamanic alphabet of natural 
images. Scholars such as Astrov, Rasmussen, and Eliade have 
often noted the especial richness of Eskimo or Inuit shamanic tra- 
dition, the great prestige of the shamans, and the unusual fact that 
they engage in shamanic journeys for their own creative and spir- 
itual enlightenment — a paradigm of the artist's quest — as well as 
to heal the sick or reestablish the spiritual equilibrium of the tribe. 
Shamanism, in fact, is allegedly of arctic origin. It would be 
strange if the sensitive, nature-oriented Atwood were not deeply 



i88 Kathryn VanSpanckeren 

affected by the rich indigenous spiritual traditions of Amerindian 
Canada. 

It is not difficult to find Eliade's departure, confrontation with 
the spirit world and return with new power in Atwood's work. 
The most familiar example is her poem "Procedures for Under- 
ground," taken from a Bella Coola legend (Atwood notes that it 
comes from the Northwest Coast): 

The country beneath 
the earth has a green sun 
and the rivers flow backwards; 

the trees and rocks are the same 

as they are here, but shifted. 

Those who live there are always hungry; 

from them you can learn 

wisdom and great power, 

if you can descend and return safely. 

You must look for tunnels, animal 
burrows or the cave in the sea 
guarded by the stone man; 

when you are down you will find 
those who were once your friends 
but they will be changed and dangerous. 

Resist them, be careful 

Never to eat their food. 

Afterwards, if you live, you will be able 

to see them when they prowl as winds, 
as thin sounds in our village. You will 
tell us their names, what they want, who 

has made them angry by forgetting them. 
For this gift, as for all gifts, you must 
suffer: those from the underland 

will be always with you, whispering their 
complaints, beckoning you 
back down; while among us here 

you will walk wrapped in an invisible 
cloak. Few will seek your help 
with love, none without fear. 

{Procedures For Underground, pp. 24-25) 



Shamanism in the Works of Mar£iaret Atwood 189 

In this poem the descent to the realm of dead spirits, now 
changed and dangerous, is clear. The dead, like the protagonist's 
father with his wolfs reflecting eyes in Surfacin£i, penetrate the 
world of the living; they inspirit the body of nature, with its cycles 
of life and death. We also see the theme of magical vision: the 
speaker can see spirits as winds, "thin sounds in our village," with- 
out being seen in her invisible cloak. Magical words appear: the 
speaker will learn jthe names of the spirits and be able to hear their 
whispered complaints. Natural images from the shamanic alpha- 
bet, such as rivers, trees, rocks, tunnels, animal burrows, winds, 
and caves, locate the poem in an archaic landscape that is also 
transformed, different: the sun is green, the rivers flow back- 
wards, the trees and rocks are "shifted." In the underworld of the 
Inuit, according to Rasmussen, the seasons are opposites of ours 
(Netsilik Eskimos, p. 315). Atwood's poem not only voices a dream- 
like shamanic descent, it identifies it with the creative process, 
with its powers and dangers, particularly the danger that despite 
the return, the descent into the creative subterranean realm of the 
unconscious permanently changes the shaman (Eskimo: an^akut, 
"one who dives" [Rasmussen, I^lulik Eskimos, p. 124]). For this 
gift, the shaman suffers and must henceforth move in the world 
above as an isolated individual: "few will seek your help / with 
love, none without fear." 

Journeys or quests involving sinking into an unconscious 
realm run throughout Atwood's poetry, from her earliest books 
to her most recent, as does death as a wellspring of creativity. 
"Persephone Departing," from Double Persephone, published in 
1961, begins "from her all springs arose / to her all falls return / 
The articulate flesh, the singing bone / Root flower and fern," 
combining themes of death, departure, the magical word, an ana- 
logue of the Lady of Beasts (Persephone), and animistic natural 
imagery. Death is an irreducible hermaphrodite in "Chthonic 
Love" and a hieroglyphic field of "words cruel as thorns" in 
"Double Persephone." 

The guiding image of The Circle Game is a closed space, the 
circle game; the title poem concludes: "I want the circle bro- 
ken" (p. 55). Circular dances are the classic form of the ghost 
dance or dance of the dead in Arctic shamanism and 
Amerindian tradition generally (Eliade, Shamanism, p. 311). 
The book includes numerous orphic poems — like "Descent 



ipo Kathryn VanSpanckeren 

Through the Carpet," "Eventual Proteus" (which uses the 
shapeshifter theme), "Spring in the Igloo," and "After the 
Flood, We" — that seem to be written from the perspective of a 
timeless watery realm specifically imaged as the land of spirits 
in Inuit shamanism. "After the Flood, We" is typical of 
Atwood's shamanic poems in that she seems to suggest that the 
really alive are the already dead, that death is the first step to 
spiritual life. The speaker must be a spirit to be able to "gather 
the sunken / bones of the drowned mothers" and hear "the 
first stumbling / footsteps of the almost-born." She says, "We 
must be the only ones / left" out of an intenser awareness than 
ordinary life provides (pp. 18-20). The Circle Game also in- 
cludes numerous poems of departure or journey, like "Evening 
Train Station, Before Departure, "Migration: C.P.R.," "Jour- 
ney to the Interior," "The Explorers," and "The Settlers" (these 
titles of the last two poems in the book are also prominent 
themes, and chapter titles, in Survival). "The Explorers" and 
"The Settlers" are voiced by the speaker's own skeleton: the 
speaker imagines explorers "surprised" at "these / gnawed 
bones ... at the two skeletons" (p. 93). The settlers' homes and 
lives, like their lands, are formed from the speaker's archaic 
skeleton: 



Now horses graze 

inside this fence of ribs, and 

children run with green 

smiles, (not knowing 

where) across 

the fields of our open hands. (P- 95) 



Rasmussen writes that Eskimo shamanic initiation invariably 
consists of "a mystical experience of death and resurrection in- 
duced by contemplating one's own skeleton" {I^flulik Eskimos, p. 
118; see also Eliade, Shamanism, pp. 58-64). 

Descents occur throughout Two-Headed Poems — in, for exam- 
ple, "Two Miles Away," in portions of "Daybooks" and "Five 
Poems for Grandmothers," and in "Nasturtium," which seems to 
describe Atwood's writing room: 



Shamanism in the Works of Margaret Atwood 191 

The room does nothing 

but like a cave it magnifies. . . . 

This is the room where I live 

most truly, or cease to live. (pp. 78-79) 

Spirits from underwater rise in "Night Poem" and in departure 
poems like "The Bus to Alliston, Ontario," where "the dead ride 
with us" (p. 76), echoing the powerful ending o^ The Journals of 
Susanna Moodie. 

In the poem "Nasturtium," Atwood says that her writing is like 
a nasturtium, the "flower of prophecy." Her writing takes place in 
a cave room, an underground space like a grave or oracular cav- 
ern, recalling Paleolithic cave art ("on the floor, caked mud, 
ashes"). "Like a cave it magnifies," says Atwood. Caves of course 
do not magnify images, but sounds, that is, words. The line im- 
plies the cave's sacred powers. In the cave, "I live / most truly, or 
cease to live." In writing Atwood is most alive because most in- 
volved in the unconscious or shamanic, most like a dead spirit. 

Interlunar, Atwood's latest volume of poetry, is filled with de- 
scents, as in "Orpheus (i)," "Euridice," "Letter to Persephone" 
(which sees women in a patriarchy as living in an underworld 
hell), "Doorway" (which imagines the speaker as a channel for un- 
derground voices), and "Orpheus (2)." Orpheus, like the mar- 
tyred Chilean singer Victor Jara, sings "in the stadium" of actual 
and metaphorical oppression: 

He was down there 
among the mouthless ones, among 
those with no fingers, those 
whose names are forbidden, 
those washed up eaten into 
among the grey stones 
of the shore where nobody goes 
through fear. Those with silence. (p. 78) 

Despite his dismemberment, Orpheus continues to sing: 
"praise is defiance" (p. 78). The descent appears as imagery ("my 
eyes are pure archaeology / through which you can see straight 
down / past all those bones and broken / kitchen utensils and 
slaughters" ["Three Denizen Songs," p. 65]) throughout the 
book, and descents carry feminist as well as political meaning. 



192 Kathryn VanSpanckeren 

To Euridice, who exists, like the Inuit Mother of Sea Beasts, in 
the deathly underworld ("the stagnant place of the deepest sea," 
p. 61), Orpheus is not savior but intruder who futilely pulls her 
toward a life defined exclusively in his terms. Increasingly 
Atwood identifies woman with the transforming, spiritual 
power acquired through descent into death and the female un- 
derworld: one thinks of Erishkigal, the underworld aspect of 
Ishtar/Inanna; Eurydice and Persephone; the Great Goddess of 
the Nag Hammadi Library, whom Judeo-Christian patriarchy 
has forced underground. The "Snake Poems" that open this vol- 
ume celebrate the snake/python sacred to the Great Goddess 
embodied in the Delphic oracle or Pythia, for example; the 
poems evoke the intuitive, body-oriented and natural religion of 
the archaic matriarchy. As snake, Atwood writes, "you slide 
down your body as into hot mud . . . you / must learn to see in 
darkness . . . / it's the death you carry in you . . . / that makes the 
world shine . . ." ("Quattrocento," p. 19). 

Throughout Atwood's poetry — and her work as a whole — we 
can see a deepening of awareness of the sources of the descent. The 
earliest references to Classical myths such as that of Persephone in 
Double Persephone give place to the idea of the European explorers 
in Canada in poems like "The Explorers" and "The Settlers," which 
conclude The Circle Game, and finally to the explicit image of the 
shaman in poems like "Procedures for Underground." This pro- 
gression evidences Atwood's rejection of received material deriv- 
ing from the colonial heritage in favor first of Canadian, and then 
indigenous Amerindian archaic material. 

At the same time, Atwood's attitude toward death becomes 
perhaps more life-affirming, as it is in the shamanic tradition, 
which cures the sick through contact with the dead. In her essay 
on "Canadian Monsters," Atwood traces a similar move in Cana- 
dian fiction from the supernatural "other" as monster in (outer) 
nature to the supernatural or monstrous within the self. As death 
or the "other" is identified with the self, the self appropriates its 
transformative power. Tou Are Happy, a turning-point volume, 
begins with death in "Newsreel: Man and Firing Squad." Atwood 
establishes the grim actuality of a man executed: the "torso jumps 
as the bullets hit / his nerves," in part i (p. 8). Part 2 begins "De- 
struction shines with such beauty" and shifts to a statement of the 
"debris of the still alive / Your left eye, green and lethal" (p. 8). 



Shamanism in the Works of Marpfaret Atwood 193 

Part ? insists there be "no more of these closeups, this agony / 
taken just for the record anvway" (p- 9) by inaccurate cameras. 
Death is not a permanent condition, but a transition within the 
natural cycle: "The scener)' is rising behind us / into focus, the 
walls / and hills are also important" (p. 9). The poem, which is 
the book in microcosm, concludes with a vision beyond life and 
death and categories such as happiness or despair: 

Our shattered faces retreat, we might be 

happy, who can interpret 

the semaphore of our bending 

bodies, from a distance we could be dancing. (p. 9) 

In "First Prayer," from the same volume, Atwood writes of 
bodies, "With their good help we will rise from the dead" (p. 73). 
There is, however, no easy escape in this volume: "Our way / not 
out but through" (p. 76). The book is a celebration of transforma- 
tive death, an eternal following after the spirit seen as a ghostly 
psychopomp; "these twilight caverns are endless / you are ahead 
/ flicker of white, you guide" ("Useless," p. 10). This poem, like 
many of Atwood's, uses the idea of magical sight that can see 
through solid objects and see into the future (in prophesy) and far 
away places. This magical sight is a shamanic ability; Rasmussen 
has recorded accounts by Eskimo shamans of such divine illumi- 
nation ("I could see right through the house, in through the earth 
and up into the sky" [I^lulik Eskimos, p. 113]). 

The second part of Tou Are Happy, "Songs of the Trans- 
formed," continues the celebration of death as transition. It also 
exemplifies Atwood's use of animal tutelary spirits found in Inuit 
shamanism. It is written from the point of view not only of ani- 
mals, but of dead (transformed) animals — animals, that is, who 
have become totems of themselves or tutelary spirits. The bull, 
rat, owl, fox, hen's head, and corpse recall their particular deaths. 
Like shamans' animal guides, they teach humans truth found only 
through death. Inuit shamanistic initiation involves an imagined 
sparagmos (dismemberment) by animals followed by new flesh 
growing around the shaman's bones; often the tormenting ani- 
mals are future tutelary spirits (Eliade, Shamanism, p. 44, quot- 
ing Lehtisalo). The rat hears his mate "trapped in your throat / 
... he is hiding / between your syllables / 1 can hear him singing" 
(p. 32). The owl says, "I am the heart of a murdered woman," a 



194 Kathryn VanSpanckeren 

murdered woman who, to find out why she was murdered, will 
turn herself into her own murderer: "my claws / will grow 
through his hands / and become claws, he will not be caught" (p. 
37). The exception is the worm, or death itself, who has an only 
gradually heard song: "when we say attack / you will hear noth- 
ing / at first" (p. 35). The worm and the corpse affirm that death is 
triumph and the condition of being doubly alive. The corpse, like 
the shaman, shares in this double existence: "I exist in two places 
/ here and where you are. / / Pray for me / not as I am but as I 
am" (p. 44). 

You Are Happy's concluding section, "Circe/Mud Poems," is 
spoken by a shamanlike Circe. Atwood's Circe has affinities with 
the Inuit Lady of Beasts. Animals like "wrecked words" litter the 
ground around her. She wears an amulet, has many faces, and 
presses her face to the earth, perhaps a reference to the common 
practice of divination by the feeling of heaviness in the head prac- 
tices by northern Amerindian women (Rasmussen, I^lulik Eski- 
mos, p. i4iff). She is familiarwith ghosts and vampires demanding 
blood: "fresh monsters are already breeding in my head" (p. 63). 
As a prophetess she clearly has the last word: "To know the future 
/ there must be a death / Hand me the axe" (p. 66). 

To appreciate the "Circe/Mud Poems" and other of Atwood's 
works, and especially to appreciate the emotionally or physically 
disabled women of the novels, it is helpful to recall a specific body 
of ethnographic materials documenting the shamanic descent to 
the "Mother of Sea Beasts" among coastal northern tribes (Eliade, 
Shamanism, pp. 293-97, 311). Though there are several versions of 
this descent, certain distinctive features predominate. Perhaps due 
to the importance of water and fishing, the main element of the 
shamanic descent here is through water. The infernal shamanistic 
descent to the underworld or undersea realm has been linked with 
female cults, as opposed to the predominately male form of celes- 
tial magical flights (Eliade, Shamanism, p. 34), and Inuit tradition 
almost entirely lacks a celestial great (male) god (Eliade, Shaman- 
ism, p. 12). At the bottom of the sea is the Mother of Sea Beasts, 
Takanakapsaluk, Great Goddess of the Animals, a Circe-like arche- 
typal figure, in Eliade's words, "source and matrix of all life upon 
whose good will the existence of the tribe depends" {Shamanism, p. 
294). The shaman must periodically reestablish contact with this 
goddess in order to ensure plentiful game, good weather, and 



Shamanism in the Works of Margaret Atwood 195 

human fertility. She is, significantly, highly offended by abortions 
or induced miscarriages (Eliade, Shamanism, p. 289), a fact of some 
interest in thinking about Surfacing. 

The shaman's underseas descent to Takanakapsaluk is often un- 
dertaken to overcome a threat of famine and is made with the help 
of the spirits of dead shamans or other dead persons, whose voices 
are heard during the seance that accompanies the descent, coming 
as if from "far underwater, as if they were sea beasts" (Eliade, Sha- 
manism, pp. 294-96). At the bottom of the ocean, the shaman 
faces various dangers based on initiatory ordeals: clashing rocks 
reminiscent of the Symplegades in the Odyssey, a ferocious dog 
like Cerberus, a father figure who mistakes the shaman's spirit for 
that of someone dead and seizes it, and a wall that may rise to 
block the Mother's house if she is angry at the actions of humans. 
In the case of famine, many kinds of marine animals are gathered 
in a pool by the Mother's fire; these animals' cries can be heard by 
the audience at the seance. 

The goddess is filthy and unkempt, and her hair hangs over her 
face: humanity's sins have made her crippled and sick. The sha- 
man must comb her hair, as she has no fingers or hands to do this. 
As the shaman combs her hair and tells her the problem occasion- 
ing this visit, the goddess will tell the shaman which tabus have 
been broken. The shaman struggles to appease her; at length she 
releases the animals from the pool. The audience hears them mov- 
ing in the sea, and the shaman's gaspings as if he or she were com- 
ing up from the sea floor. The shaman recounts the broken tabus 
to the audience gathered to witness the descent, they confess their 
sins, and cosmological order is restored. Edmund Carpenter, dis- 
cussing the related legend of Sedna or Nuliajuk ("young girl"), 
who rules all animals from the bottom of the sea, fingerless and 
abducted by a cruel dog disguised as a man, writes, "Every Eskimo 
knew it and had his own version, all equally true, for this myth was 
too complex for any simple telling" ("Eskimo Artist," pp. 109- 
12). There are numerous parallels: in shamanic legends from is- 
lands in Japan, for example, the woman shaman or animal 
unhappily marries a human (Schafer).Atwood's Circe combines 
many strands of the tradition. 

The Circe in part 3 of Tou Are Happy is a type of Mother of Sea 
Beasts, with power to grant various wishes (for food and sex, for 
example) of the visitor, who like a shaman has the power to leave 



196 Kathryn VanSpanckeren 

her, to return to his home. The first poem ends "You move within 
range of my words / you land on the dry shore // you find what 
there is," indicating that her realm is one of supernormal truth or 
authenticity. The second poem tests the visitor. Circe rejects 
gods, "men with the heads of eagles" and "those who can fly," and 
asks for authenticity in return for her own: for real men who have 
"escaped from these / mythologies with barely their lives." The 
third poem evidences the destructive powers of false myths, old 
stories or ideas about the self that are no longer true. They are old 
words (on one reading, Atwood's previous works) and dead ani- 
mals "littering the ground," indicating a spiritual or emotional 
famine. The fourth piece, a prose poem, explicitly imagines the 
vocation of a shaman: that of curing the sick through supernat- 
ural wisdom: 



People come from all over to consult me, bringing their limbs which 
have unaccountably fallen off, they don't know why, my front porch is 
waist deep in hands, bringing their blood. . . . They offer me their pain, 
hoping in return for a word . . . from those they have assaulted daily, 
with shovels, axes . . . the silent ones. . . . Around me everything is worn 
down, the grass the roots, the soil, nothing is left but the bared rock. 
(P- 49) 



The image is of the Mother of Beasts in a wasteland caused by 
humanity's sins. The cycle continues to describe an ill-fated 
love, in which Circe, like Sedna, yields, albeit unwillingly, pas- 
sionately falling in love, offering all, losing and receiving little 
in return except pain. Unlike Sedna's, Circe's pain initiates her 
into human feeling; she experiences the cycle of rejection, 
anger, and finally acceptance. 

The cycle shows an original and sophisticated use of the mythic 
shamanic material to enforce an antimythic meaning — that an 
earned, emotionally lived life is more powerful than myth's escapes 
and illusions. Through suffering and spiritual death, Circe gains 
the shamanic power to heal herself. This Mother of Beasts, who is 
made ill by the man's treatment, like the female protagonist of so 
many of Atwood's novels learns that salvation comes not with a re- 
lationship with a man, but only from self-sufficient ability to live, 
to "be right" on only one of two islands. Atwood provides a fine ex- 
ample of women embodying not a static reward for men but the ac- 



Shamanism in the Works of Margaret Atwood 197 

tive heroic life demanded by Carolyn Heilbrun, Annis Pratt, and 
other feminist critics concerned with the creation of imaginatively 
viable heroines. 

Atwood's self-reliant female heroines and pervasive water and 
animal imagery take on new significance when set against the fig- 
ure of the Mother of Beasts. SMr/itaw^'s protagonist, for example, 
gains wisdom and sees spirit ancestors (her real father, petro- 
glyphs) in the lake; after she sees the final wolflike vision of what 
her dead father had become, a totemic fish jumps from the lake. 
The fish suggests the Ojibwa water monster Mis-shi-pi-zhiw, as 
Guedon notes. Lady Oracle's Joan Foster stages her death by 
drowning in another of the lakes that recur in each of the novels; 
this fake death ironically leads to the beginnings of self- 
knowledge. The novel is in one reading a search (descent) for rec- 
onciliation with a deadlv mother (Sedna) and her vindictive spirit: 
the descent is made through the "pool" of the mirror and trance. 

Rennie in Bodily Harm also follows the pattern of the shamanic 
descent. Like Circe, the protagonist of Surfacin^r, and Joan, 
Rennie is both the ill person seeking cure and her own shaman — a 
configuration Barbara Hill Rigney notes, in different terms, as the 
need for feminine heroines to "become" their own mothers. 
Rennie descends into depression caused by breast cancer, seeks a 
doctor, and goes to an area of sea and islands, where she meets a 
helper named Dr. Minnow — perhaps a reference to the totemic 
fish as much as to Christ. She meets her animus in the form of 
Paul. Ix)ra, who yearns for a child and whose innocent boyfriend 
is killed, may be compared to the Mother of Sea Beasts, who is 
crippled, made filthy and sick by the ill-doings of men. Rennie's 
sense of self is restored by Paul and Lora, whose hair she combs in 
prison, a realm of actual and metaphoric death. Her return and 
cure is not merely personal but serves the entire community in 
that she resolves in the end to write the true stories Dr. Minnow 
and Lora had asked for, revealing the political crimes she has wit- 
nessed. In writing the true story, she will be confessing and testify- 
ing, purifying the large community. Unwitting and initially 
unwilling, she undergoes an enforced initiation and brings en- 
lightenment back from her encounter with the realm of death. It 
may be worth noting, in this context, that the shamanic call can- 
not be denied: an attempt to evade it inevitably leads to sickness 
and even psychosis, as Eliade documents from various cultures. 



ipS Kathryn VanSpanckeren 

In Bodily Harm Rennie learns that "she is not exempt," that 
"nobody is exempt from anything," as she reaHzes the brutal fact 
that she and Lora may be killed (p. 290). Grasping that fact, 
Rennie comes to feel compassion for Lora despite her mutilated 
body, passionately trying to pull her spirit back from death, to 
cure her. This compassion, which Rennie could not previously 
feel, recalls the treatment of the grandmother as ancestor in many 
of Atwood's novels. The Grandmother is a debased form of the 
Great Goddess, in Inuit myth imaged as lacking hands and exist- 
ing at the ocean floor. In Bodily Harm this grandmother keeps 
misplacing her hands, forgetting where they are. Rennie is re- 
pelled by this, though her mother shows her how to comfort the 
old lady — by grasping the hands with warm human touch, and by 
reassurance — telling her her hands are there, at the end of her 
arms, where she left them. This sort of compassion and human 
touch is part of the wisdom and power that Rennie learns from her 
descent, as we see in her compassion for Lx)ra. Similarly, Rennie is 
disembodied — dies and is transformed — when she makes love 
with Paul and regains touch with herself and her body: "she 
stroked the back of his neck and thought of the soul leaving the 
body in the form of words, on little scrolls like the ones in medie- 
val paintings" (p. 206). Infatuated with the physician Daniel, she 
remembers medieval pictures of souls leaving their bodies (p. 
198). At Rennie's most alive movements, she automatically imag- 
ines death. 

Life Before Man even more explicitly invokes death. The tutelary 
animal spirits and dead ancestors of shamanism have analogues in 
taxidermy and in the dinosaurs, who are extinct, and thus doubly 
dead. The subject of suicide in that novel similarly intensifies the 
death theme: in committing suicide Chris kills an important part of 
Elizabeth's soul, casts her in the role of guilty killer, and demands 
reparation in the form of her psychological breakdown or descent. 
Staring at her ceiling as if it were her tomb, Elizabeth must become 
her own shaman to cure herself of this loss of soul and guilt. Death, 
descent, tutelary animals, magical vision and words, prophesy, and 
spirits (for example, the Lady of Animals) as used in Inuit shaman- 
ism inform Atwood's work in all genres. 

The alphabet of shamanism's primitive imagery of bones, teeth, 
skin, vegetation, food, eating, eliminating, birth and death, and 
the elements similarly appears throughout Atwood's work as a 



Shamanism in the Works of Margaret Atwood 199 

whole. Space does not permit enumeration, though close readers 
of Atwood will be able to provide numerous examples. The 
"Spring Poem" from part i of Tow Are Happy illustrates the com- 
bination of the descent and shamanic imagery: 

I plunge 

my hands and arms into the dirt, 
swim among the stones and cutworms, 
come up'rank as a fox, 

restless. Nights, while seedlings 

dig near my head 

I dream of reconciliations. (pp. 22-23) 

The most sustained and successful use of this imagery is perhaps 
found in The Journals of Susanna Moodie, the protagonist of 
which has "sunk down into the sea" ("First Neighbors," p. 14) of 
the Canadian wilderness: 

I need wolfs eyes to see 
the truth. 

I refuse to look in a mirror 

Whether the wilderness is 

real or not 

depends on who live there. ("Further Arrivals," pp. 12-13) 

Susanna Moodie imagines her life after death in "Alternative 
Thoughts from Underground" as literally buried: 

Down. Shovelled. Can hear 

faintly laughter, footsteps; 

the shrill of glass and steel (p. 57) 

and she feels what the dinosaurs felt, 

scorn but also pity: what 

the bones of the giant reptiles . . . 

felt when scuttled 

across, nested in by the velvet immoral 

uncalloused and armourless mammals. (p. 57) 

Her wisdom is, again, that of death: "god is the whirlwind / at the 
last judgement we will all be trees" ("Resurrection," p. 58). In the 



200 Kathryn VanSpanckeren 

final poem, "A Bus along St. Clair: December," Moodie takes the 
shape of "the old woman / sitting across from you on the bus," 
who mutters a prediction: "Turn, look down: / there is no city; / 
this is the centre of a forest // your place is empty" (p. 6i). As 
often happens in shamanic poetic style, and as Margot Astrov 
notes in Amerindian poetry as well, the declarative command 
form of the sentences endows the prediction with the force of a 
magical charm or spell. The poetry becomes the magical song of 
shamanism. 

One of the most arresting of Atwood's recurring images is the 
mirror, an important article in shamanic ritual. Spirits are 
thought to be visible in mirrors, and shamans gaze into them to 
fall into a trance. Mirrors are found worldwide in shamanic prac- 
tices. They adorn shamans' costumes and archeologists have un- 
earthed statues of powerful female shamans (miko) with mirrors 
in Japan dating back to 400 ad. (Blacker, p. 104) . Anyone familiar 
with Atwood will have noticed her frequent use of mirrors to sug- 
gest a host of meanings, most of them centering on a split-off 
deathly or spirit self In the ending of "Tricks with Mirrors," the 
mirror says, "You are suspended in me // beautiful and frozen, I 
/ preserve you, in me you are safe" (Tou Are Happy, p. 26). The 
speaker, in a rejection reminiscent of the desire to break the circle 
in The Circle Game, objects: 

I wanted to stop this, 

this life flattened against the wail 

mute and devoid of colour, 
built of pure light, 

this life of vision only, split 

and remote, a lucid impasse. (p. 27) 

The ending, "Perhaps I am not a mirror. / Perhaps I am a pool. 
// Think about pools" (p. 27) in the context of shamanic under- 
water descent suggests a possible way out of static mirrors: the 
way of a descent into the transforming element of the uncon- 
scious, and a confrontation with the spirit forces and ancestors, 
the analogous buried complexes within the self. 

Atwood's recurring use of the natural alphabet of shamanic im- 
ages, journey structures (especially descents to the spirit world), 
and supernatural themes link her with the shamanic tradition, as 



Shamanism in the Works of Margaret Atwood 201 

does her stress on the cure of the soul. An understanding of sha- 
manism clarifies Atwood's works and helps locate the source of 
her mysterious tone of otherness and her appeal to contemporary 
readers deprived of spiritual values in a secular world. It can also 
suggest a way of reading contemporary literature (and experi- 
ence) in a spiritual and ethical manner without reference to any 
given religious dogma. 

Death orientation is central not only to shamanism but to ar- 
chetypal psychology, which has clarified the vital importance of 
death in the life of the soul. James Hillman, the most provocative 
writer on the subject, argues in Re- Visionin£i Psychology that Hades 
is the "God of the hidden, the underworld meaning in things, 
their deeper obscurities" (p. 205). Loss of Hades, also known as 
Pluto, "Riches," or "Wealth-Giver," has, in Hillman's phrase, 
turned our imaginings of soul too "maidenly pure," "wood- 
washed and bare" (p. 205). Hillman theorizes that Hades is the 
god of the historical Renaissance and of "all psychological renas- 
cences" and that he is "the archetypal principle of the deepest as- 
pect of the soul and of rebirth" (p. 206). In order to repossess 
Hades we must "see through" the one-sided Aristotelian and ana- 
lytical approaches in favor of a deeper concern with the relation of 
soul to death, rebirth, and the eternal. Hillman writes that we 
need the Hades perspective, "the wealth that is discovered 
through recognizing the interior deeps of the imagination. For 
the underworld was mythologically conceived as a place where 
there are only psychic images. From the Hades perspective we are 
our images^"" (p. 207). 

The great need of contemporary persons, Hillman says, is to 
admit that "we are not real," that is, to admit that our idea of our- 
selves and of the world is illusion, a concept familiar to Buddhist 
and Hindu thought. We are spirits to the extent that we exist in the 
deathless creative reality of our emotions and images; to realize this 
we must struggle against limiting materialistic and empirical ten- 
dencies of our technological Western culture. Like Henry Adams, 
Hillman finds the ancient female spiritual principle, the Great 
Mother (potent in the Renaissance figures of Persephone, Laura, 
and Mary), to be lacking in current expression. The Great Mother 
(as Mother of Beasts, Circe, Persephone) appears in Atwood's 
shamanic writings, and, for her, death has a function like 
Hillman's: to draw us away from ordinary human life and closer to 



202 Kathryn VanSpanckeren 

the spirit realm or gods, who in Hillman's words "are not human 
but to whose inhumanity the soul is inherently priorly related" (p. 

193)- 

Rank made a similar point almost thirty years ago in Beyond Psy- 
chology (p. i8), correctly warning of the necessity for a release of 
chthonic, Dionysian impulses (historically celebrating the Great 
Mother and her cults of death and rebirth) lest their repression 
only lead to an uncontrollable breakout of irrational violence 
(Hinz). The expression of death and violence clearly issues, in 
Atwood, in a sense of heightened life and creativity, and in 
Atwood's recent work we see an explicit engagement with social 
justice that would bear our Rank's prediction that given our 
Apollonian culture the Dionysian ultimately leads to balance. De- 
spite the many journeys in her works, Atwood has not had to leave 
Canada to discover the Great Mother: she travels back in cultural 
time to reach archaic realities inspiriting her given Canadian terri- 
tory. Her work regenerates our sacral awareness through indige- 
nous North American spiritual traditions. 

Atwood's use of shamanism can bear out a feminist reading 
as well. Eliade believes that present day shamanism retains ear- 
marks of an earlier matriarchal structure, particularly the vari- 
ety of shamanism that focuses upon death and descents, as 
opposed to male-oriented magical flights and a celestial God 
{Shamanism, p. 505). Studies of isolated communities in the cir- 
cumpolar regions — for example in Japan, Southeast Asia, and 
South America — indicate a continued tradition of extremely 
powerful female shamans found alongside legends and arti- 
facts representing the Mother of Beasts and the theme of mar- 
riage between humans and nonhumans. The nonhumans are 
not only gods or spirits of the dead, but animals, especially 
water dragons or snakes, beasts living underwater perhaps re- 
lated to the Amerindian water deities in Surfacing pictographs 
(Blacker, pp. 104-26; Schafer). This anthropological and eth- 
nographic evidence of descent shamanism as a largely female 
mode is born out by numerous theories such as Jung's asserting 
women's inherent affinity with the earth. If, as Eliade holds, 
shamanism is humankind's original and innate ecstatic spirit- 
ual orientation, that innate orientation may well be female, or 
at least more female than later organized religions, which envi- 
sion God as male, would have us believe. 



Shamanism in the Works of Margaret Atwood 20:? 

One need not categorize Atwood as a feminist, however, in 
order to grasp the importance of a shamanic literary mode in 
embodying a female and at the same time universal perspective. 
Shamanism, unlike sophisticated or sentimentalized pastoral 
written by urbanites, presents nature from within, not as refuge 
but as primary locale, not as peaceful and good but as a holistic 
unity of life and death, and life in death. It is an expression of an 
ecological vision, an ancient mode whose wisdom we are only 
now coming to appreciate. 

Because its images are as instinct with death as with life and 
show the two as intertwined and mutually dependent in transfor- 
mation, shamanic writing can dramatize feminist themes of 
breakdowns and madness as well as of healing and rebirth, as seen 
in Doris Lessing's Golden Notebook, Charlotte Bronte's /««^ Eyre, 
and Virginia Woolfs Mrs. Dalloway. The observations of femi- 
nist scholars such as Ellen Moers and Gilbert and Gubar that 
women writers tend to employ image systems drawing upon the 
human body, blood, flesh and bone, and cavelike enclosures in 
rooms and houses may be related to a tendency of women writers 
to use a shamanic mode, drawing upon the body, the elements, 
and ecstatic madness leading to cure, such as one finds also in 
Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Adrienne Rich. 

The shamanic mode may seem a superfluous or unusual phrase 
but is not more so than the suggestive elemental poetics of Gaston 
Bachelard, who notes that certain poets embody world views en- 
compassed by such elements as fire and water. Marie von Franz 
suggests that the artist's stance is that of the creative, irresponsi- 
ble, eternal child, the Puer Aeternus. The notion of a shamanic 
stance restores dignity and maturity to the idea of the artist as a 
spiritual spokesperson for the community. Insofar as the sha- 
man's vocation is not only spiritual ecstasy but also healing, the 
shamanic mode accommodates the artists' engaged ethical vision 
that writers like Carolyn Forche have projected. It is one more 
tribute to Margaret Atwood's importance as a writer that her 
works may be said to possess a shamanic vision that speaks the lan- 
guage of nature to tell the oldest and most pressing stories. 

Notes 

I. Page references to Atwood's novels, stories, and books of poetry are 
to the following: Bodily Harm (New York: Bantam, 1983); The Circle 



204 Kathryn VanSpanckeren 

Game (Toronto: Anansi, 1966); Dancing Girls (Toronto: McClelland and 
Stewart, 1977); Double Persephone (Toronto: Hawkshead Press, 1961); In- 
terlunar (Toronto: Oxford Univ. Press, 1984); Life Before Man (New 
York: Simon and Schuster, 1979); Procedure for Under£[round (Boston: 
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1970); The Journals of Susanna Moodie (Toronto: 
Oxford Univ. Press, 1970); Two-Headed Poems (New York: Simon and 
Schuster, Touchstone, 1978); Tou Are Happy (New York: Harper and 
Row, 1974)- 



14 Sexual Politics in Margaret 
Atwood^s VistmlArt 

Sharon R. Wilson 



Since Margaret Atwood's watercolors have never before 
been published or exhibited to the general public^ and are ei- 
ther privately owned or in the Atwood Papers at the University 
of Toronto (Atwood Papers, Art Work), few critics realize the 
extent to which her visual art not only parallels her literary 
work but highlights her always provocative presentation of 
sexual politics. 

Like Atwood's fiction, poetry, and essays, many of the archive 
watercolors, which are sometimes untitled or undated, present 
gothic images of female-male relationships in fairy tales, myth, 
legend, the Bible, literature, popular culture, and history. Several 
watercolors, in fact, were created while she was working on Power 
Politics, the third section of which, as Atwood says, "has lots of ref- 
erences to fairytales and gothic stories. . . . Those particular kinds 
of things are close to patterning. Jungians would call them 
Jungian." Furthermore, the Grimm brothers' tales, which 
Atwood read when very young, have the "depth for [her] that cer- 
tain Biblical stories and Greek stories also have." While she 
doesn't "think that doing visual art has particularly affected liter- 
ary art," Atwood frequently has painted before, during, or just 
after doing related poems or novels (she is more likely to paint 
when writing poetry than when working on a novel). As Atwood 
says, "sometimes I paint things before I write about them; the 
thing appears as a visual image. On the other hand, sometimes I 
don't. Poets and artists . . . [shouldn't] think too much about 
processes — it interrupts work. The visual art and the rest of it is 

205 



2o6 Sharon R. Wilson 

connected at some level. I don't really have any way of verbalizing 
it" (taped interview). 

This connection is most evident in cases where Atwood's art 
has been designed, used, or adapted for covers of particular texts: 
Double Persephone (linocut put into a flatbed printing press, 1961, 
uncredited [Atwood, taped interview]); The Journals of Susanna 
Moodie (photograph, 1970); Power Politics (watercolor, 1970; 
William Kimber cover based on the watercolor, 1971); the Cana- 
dian edition of Two-Headed Poems (Graeme Gibson photograph 
of Atwood flour-and-salt Christmas tree ornaments, 1978)., Bodily 
Harm (undated watercolor of a cell under a microscope, not used 
[Atwood, taped interview]); the Canadian edition of True Stories 
(watercolor of a broken heart, 1980; book 1981); Murder in the 
Dark (photograph of a collage composed from caviar, sun block, 
and wet-look bathing suit ads in Vogue [Atwood, taped interview]; 
book 1983); and Interlunar (watercolor of landscape; book 1984). 
Atwood often works on book covers just after doing the poetry 
and, in some cases, she has designed and laid out the cover itself: 
Double Persephone, 1961; the Contact Press and Anansi editions of 
The Circle Game (both 1966); the American edition of Two- 
Headed Poems (a magnified cell in process of division, which was 
not used);^ and The Journals of Susanna Moodie. 

While not all of these covers can be discussed here, several are 
linked to literary images of sexual politics. The Circle Game cover 
design, which is made of sticker dots (Atwood, taped interview), 
is not a closed circle but a spiral that "suggests possibility of break- 
through. "' Also, Atwood's use of her own photographs as a com- 
ponent in two book covers. Murder in the Dark and The Journals 
of Susanna Moodie, is significant in interpreting her recurrent lit- 
erary images of camera and photograph. Contrary to popular im- 
pression, Atwood is not only widely photographed; she is also an 
occasional photographer who feels "some [of her photographs] 
are actually quite good." Atwood is interested in a photograph's 
ability to freeze time (Atwood, taped interview); a photograph 
also seems to freeze characters in roles that are socially condi- 
tioned, desired, or feared. Thus, her literary works often feature 
couples turning reality or one another into photographs (Wilson, 
"Camera Images," p. 31). Similarly, eating imagery is recurrent in 
both her literary and visual art; it is linked to fairy tales as well as 
power politics in "Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein," Power Poli- 





Plate 1. Untitled Watercolor, Archive-Labeled "Death as Bride,' 
1970, Signed 




Plate 2. Untitled Watercolor, Archive-Labeled "Lady and Sinister 
Fi^ure,^' 1969, Signed 




Plate 3. Untitled Watercolor, Archive-Labeled "Lady and 
Executioner with Axe," 1969, Signed 




Plate 4. Untitled Watercolor, Archive-Labeled "Man Holdin£i 
Woman's Body," 1970, Si^ined 





Plate 5. Untitled Watercolor, Archive-Labeled "Mourners at 
Woman's Bier," 1970, Signed 




Plate 6. Untitled Watercolor, Archive-Labeled "Handed Man/ 
1970, Signed 




Plate 7. Untitled Watercolor, Archive-Labeled "Insect in Red 
Gown with Bouquet," Undated, Unsigned 




n-^ 



Plate 8. Untitled Watercolor, Archive-Labeled "Atwoods as 
Birds," 1974, Signed 



Sexual Politics in Atwood's Visual Art 207 

tics. The Edible Woman, Lady Oracle, and an untitled watercolor. 
While the photographed flour-and-salt Christmas decorations on 
the cover of Trvo-Headed Poems only appear edible, they illustrate 
Atwood's skill in culinary art. Atwood was and still is a good cake 
decorator, and this interest in edible art was "part of the impetus 
for the cake in The Edible Woman, an anthropomorphic objet 
made of foodstuffs, such as candy brides and grooms and Donald 
Duck cakes in Wqolworth's" (Atwood, taped interview). 

When asked about a relationship between her recurrent and 
negative literary images of packaging and surfaces and either her 
experiences with commercial publishers or her decision to do 
cover art, Atwood says the negative images of packaging don't 
come from negative experiences with publishers, "although you 
might fit them in." In fact, Atwood has "been interested in pack- 
aging for a very, very long time." Like Surfacin^i^s narrator, when 
she was eight or nine Atwood made a scrapbook that included nu- 
merous pictures cut from ads. Later, "when [Marshall] McLuhan 
brought out Mechanical Bride, [she] got it immediately and was 
very interested." She doesn't, however, "consider [her] cover de- 
signs to be packaging." Murder in the Dark^s cover, which is not a 
parody, is "neither art [n]or merchandizing. It is a cover design 
appropriate to the book" (Atwood, taped interview). 

In other cases Atwood has done artwork, not as illustration of 
literary texts, but as a "parallel activity that had to do with the 
same body of material" (Atwood, taped interview): the "Termite 
Queen" poetry series (unpublished), "Dreams of the Animals" 
(broadside, 197-), The Journals of Susanna Moodie, and particular 
poems in Procedures for Underground, The Animals in That Coun- 
try, and Power Politics. Most of the archive watercolors are of this 
type. She has also done comic strips and illustrations for chil- 
dren's books. 

Despite the extraordinary power of some of her visual art, how- 
ever, Atwood, like many women artists (including her own narra- 
tor of Surfacing)., seems to undercut the value of her visual work: 
"I paint images but am not a painter, if you understand the differ- 
ence" (Atwood, taped interview). Often working in styles or 
media outside the mainstream, women artists may be denied for- 
mal recognition and thus lack confidence in their work. Finding 
it necessary to insist that some paintings are "done for fun" and 
that some details in the archive watercolors are accidental, she 



2o8 Sharon R. Wilson 

maintains that others occur "just because [she] do[es]n't paint 
very well" (Atwood, letter; taped interview). Thus, she doesn't 
take artistic influence very seriously but mentions Hieronymus 
Bosch and Bruegel. The atmosphere of these two painters' work 
certainly resembles Atwood's literary as well as visual landscape, 
which might be variously considered gothic, super real, or dis- 
torted in the direction of surrealism. Like Atwood's poetry and 
fiction, the watercolors present recurrent, archetypal images of 
power politics, in which women and men may not only oppose 
but also represent aspects of one another, playing roles evoking 
fairy tales, gothic stories, myths, television, comic books, and 
nursery rhymes. 

I . Untitled watercolor, archive-labeled "Death as Bride," 1970, 
signed. This watercolor (see plate i), which in many ways typifies 
the mood of the archive art, is based on the Grimms' fairy tale 
"Pitcher's Bird," one of many Bluebeard stories. This fairy tale is 
about a disguised wizard whose touch forces prett)-^ girls to leap 
into his basket. When they are taken to his castle, they are given an 
egg, which they must carry everywhere, and keys to every room 
but one, which they are forbidden to enter. Most versions of the 
tale deal with three sisters: the first two are curious and open the 
door, discovering the chopped-up bodies of former brides. 
Fitcher/Bluebeard, seeing the egg's indelible blood stains, recog- 
nizes their disobedience. The third sister, who cleverly leaves the 
egg outside, passes the test, thus gaining power over the wizard. 
She escapes by disguising herself as a marvelous bird and, more 
important, she is able to rejoin the severed pieces of her sisters, 
recreating rather than destroying life {Complete Grimm^s, pp. 216- 
20). "Pitcher's Bird" is a paradigm of the sexual politics underly- 
ing Atwood's work, and it is the basis for the menace of the room 
(or unopened door to the room) from The Circle Game to The 
Handmaid's Tale (Wilson, "Bluebeard," p. 390). 

The watercolor shows the ornamented skull that the groom and 
his friends mistake for the bride. But the female figure is, as well, 
the death previous sisters and brides encounter in the room and, 
ironically, the death the man ultimately marries because of his ex- 
pectations. The red flowers seem to bleed down the front of the 
figure's gown, anticipating the bleeding flowers in The Hand- 
maid's Tale (1985) as well as the consequences of "loving" 



Sexual Politics in Atwood's Visual Art 209 

"Bluebeards" in that and other Atwood works, including "Hesi- 
tation Outside the Door" {Power Politics, 1970) and Bluebeard's 
Egg (1983), in which the "Pitcher's Bird" fairy tale is embedded. 
The closely related Grimms' fairytale "The Robber Bridegroom," 
in which the groom actually eats prospective brides, is alluded to 
in Bodily Harm (1982), whose original title was "The Robber 
Bridegroom," and in a poem of the same name in Interlunar 
(1984). Atwood's watercolor "The Robber Bridegroom" pictures 
a man holding both an axe and a blond head. The head emits light 
(Atwood, telephone conversation with author). As in "Pitcher's 
Bird," the female protagonist in the Grimms' "The Robber Bride- 
groom" survives the sexual battle, in the first case by using her 
wits and in the second, by speaking. 

2. Untitled watercolor, archive-labeled "Lady and Sinister Pig- 
ure," 1969, signed. Atwood says this female figure, shown in plate 
2, is Mary, Queen of Scots, Ann Boleyn, or "someone like that" 
(taped interview). In addition to "Pitcher's Bird," the figures sug- 
gest the dynamics of Mme. de Villeneuve's "Beauty and the 
Beast" or the Grimms' "Little Red-Cap." There is a visual contrast 
and tension between the apparent male, who seems primitive and 
menacing, and the somewhat prim female, whose dress is both 
formal and red, the color of blood, death, birth, and passion and 
the color Marian in The Edible Woman associates with being a tar- 
get, a hunted rabbit. As the beheaded Anne Boleyn, one of Henry 
VIII's six wives who failed to produce a male heir, the figure is 
again one of the interchangeable wives of Bluebeard and a victim 
of patriarchal politics. As Mary Stuart, the figure can suggest be- 
trayed innocence, the absurd consequences of religious intoler- 
ance, or the no less deadly or abstract power politics between 
women. Much admired for her intelligence and poise in the mo- 
ments before execution, Mary was beheaded, dressed in red, on 
orders from her cousin, Elizabeth I (Anne Boleyn and Henry 
VIII's daughter), who probably never met her. 

Already missing her right hand, which was, perhaps, too close 
to the bestial other, the female figure resembles the narrator of 
Bodily Harm and numerous other Atwood personae recalling 
"The Girl Without Hands" {Complete Grimm's, pp. 160-65). 
Among other amputated pieces, both figures seem to be missing 
their hands — their ability to touch and keep in touch. Whether 
Anne or Mary, the woman, an inhabitant of Bluebeard's castle 



2IO Sharon R. Wilson 

and a figure of legend, is finally a pawn in a series of relentlessly 
unfolding events. Her powerlessness is dramatized in her being 
beheaded, a condition many Atwood personae fear and a fate suf- 
fered even by female characters in male novels (Atwood, "Wom- 
en's Novels," pp. 34-36). 

3. Untitled watercolor, archive-labeled "Lady and Executioner 
with Axe," 1969, signed. Atwood pairs this watercolor (repro- 
duced as plate 3), which again pictures Mary Stuart or Ann 
Boleyn, with "Lady and Sinister Figure" above (Atwood, taped 
interview). I am reminded of "Marrying the Hangman" {Two- 
Headed Poems [1978]), which is based on a true story of a couple's 
escaping death, in his case by becoming the executioner and in 
hers by marrying the executioner. In Atwood's poem, the woman 
must not only create the hangman; she must also convince him to 
exchange his face for the "impersonal mask of death, of official 
death which has eyes but no mouth." We are reminded that "there 
is more than one hangman." As the female narrator asks, "Who 
else is there to marry?" (p. 49). Despite Atwood's preference for 
stories in which women are more than victims (Atwood, tele- 
phone conversation with author), the woman in the painting is 
victimized. Significantly, her head seems already detached from 
her body, the axe is marked with red, and her dress, like both fig- 
ures' eyes, is the color of blood. Like many of the watercolor fig- 
ures, these appear to be mouthless, voiceless; his barlike eyes make 
him appear an automaton, like the Frankenstein below. 

4. Untitled watercolor, archive-labeled "Man Holding Wom- 
an's Body," 1970, signed. According to Atwood, this watercolor 
and "Mourners at Woman's Bier" (see plates 4 and 5) deal with 
the Frankenstein story (Atwood, taped interview), to which 
Atwood alluded in "Speeches of Doctor Frankenstein," originally 
published with Charles Pachter's woodcuts (1966) and later in The 
Animals in That Country (1968). Again the figures make a striking 
contrast. He, like the "sinister figure" and executioner, is partly 
black and, in this case, blocklike, powerful, robotic. Although he 
is "holding" the inert, pink body of the woman, who, unlike the 
man, is fluid, he appears armless, as incapable of touch as she is of 
action. Both are faceless. Viewed through Shelley's Frankenstein 
and Atwood's "Speeches," the watercolor has a number of other 
dimensions. As Atwood says, Shelley's novel is "a creation para- 
ble, where God forsakes Adam . . . because he can't face the gro- 



Sexual Politics in Atwood's Visual Art 211 

tesque creature that he's produced. But the monster's not evil. . . . 
He's totally innocent." In her poem, however, "the monster is the 
narrator's other self, and the process of writing that poem in- 
volved separating the two selves." In this case, "it's the monster 
who deserts his maker" (Sandler, p. 15). Thus, while the water- 
color may depict the monster holding the lifeless body of 
Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein's fiancee, or more generally, the pas- 
sive female victim in a battle of sexual politics, it may also show 
the monster holding his female creator or, to put it another way, 
the female being held by the monster she has created. 

5. Untitled watercolor, archive-labeled "Mourners at Wom- 
an's Bier," 1970, signed. The subject of the watercolor reproduced 
as plate 5 again is Frankenstein, and a number of questions arise. Is 
the dark figure framed in the doorway Dr. Frankenstein, who is 
viewing the results of his Faustian attempt to play God? If the 
dead woman is Shelley's Elizabeth, does the bouquet again ser\'e a 
double purpose, so that marriage to an artist is simultaneously a 
funeral? Does the rootlike hair suggest a possibility of rebirth? 
Does the dead woman, like the monster, represent a part of Dr. 
Frankenstein, who appears to be either male or female creator? 
Or, in this case, has the female creator been murdered by her cre- 
ation? Does creation always involve "murder"? More generally, 
again a female has been victimized by a hidden part of her 
finance's personality. But what if she, like the persona in 
"Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein," has sliced loose a reflection 
that refuses to stay framed in the mirror? 

6. Untitled watercolor, archive-labeled "Hanged Man," 1970, 
signed. Based on the hanged man card of the Tarot, this water- 
color (though not so credited in the book) is the original for the 
cover of Power Politics (Atwood, tape interview) and a pattern for 
the theme of sexual politics that underlies most of the archive wa- 
tercolors (see plate 6). The right figure, the male, wears medals re- 
calling Power Politics^s wooden general with the statue concubine 
as well as that volume's other matched sets, with both projected 
and defensive false skins or disguises. As one of my students ob- 
served, if the work were turned upside down, it would be the man, 
not the woman, who would be powerless. Speaking of the actual 
cover, which adds mummy wrapping to the woman and a suit of 
armour to the man, Judith McCombs asks, "Is he there at all? If 
so, is he a prisoner in his rigid iron role?" {Review of Power Politics, 



212 Sharon R. Wilson 

p. 55). Some question also exists about the complacent expression 
and possibly voluntary arm and leg position of the cover's female 
figure, which would seem to allow struggle. In any case, the wom- 
an's arms in the watercolor remind us of "Lady and Sinister Fig- 
ure," and the ritualistic position seems timeless. The man and 
woman are tied to or are extensions of one another, both victims/ 
victors of prescribed or projected roles that, because of each 
figure's aura or halo, seem to be either intrinsic or divine. 

7. Untitled watercolor, archive-labeled "Insect in Red Gown 
with Bouquet," undated, unsigned. Atwood says this watercolor 
(reproduced as plate 7) is a termite queen, an illustration for the 
unpublished "Termite Queen" poem series (Atwood, telephone 
conversation with author). Pictured with a crescent moon, she 
evokes not only Diana, Venus, Persephone, and Hecate as life- 
love-fertility-death and creator-destroyer aspects of the mother 
goddess,"* but also the red-clad Handmaid breeders of The Hand- 
maid's Tale, the Grimms' "Little Red-Cap" (to which The Hand- 
maid's Tale alludes), American TV's "Queen for a Day," prom 
queens, and winners of beauty pageants. Again she is targeted in 
blood red, with a tiny head and huge, pregnant body reminiscent 
of Venus of Willendorf and other fertility figures. She is what 
Adrienne Rich calls "the eternal fucking machine" (p. 285), one of 
the reflected or conditioned images Marian, Joan, Rennie, and 
Offred (the protagonists, respectively, of The Edible Woman, 
Lady Oracle, Bodily Harm, and The Handmaid's Tale) want to re- 
pudiate. Like the termite queen in Power Polities'' s "She Considers 
Evading Him" and Joan Foster in Lady Oracle, the figure in the 
watercolor is also satirically linked with the reduction of women's 
ancient images to quick-change costumes for the escape artist. 

8. Untitled watercolor, archive-labeled "Atwoods as Birds," 
1974, signed. Identifying these figures (see plate 8) as a mother 
harpy and chicks rather than one or several Atwoods, Atwood is 
interested in the idea of women (chicks) as birds (Atwood, taped 
interview). The societal inconsistency of viewing women as 
bitch-harpies as well as chic chicks is made ludicrous here. 
Atwood has also done a watercolor of a mermaid with eggs 
(Atwood, letter) and comic ones of a male harpy (archive- 
labeled "Red Bird," 1976) and a Dracula (archive-labeled "Por- 
trait of Graeme Gibson," 1974). 



Sexual Politics in Atwood's Visual Art 213 

Thus, both tragic and comic, the images of sexual politics in 
Atwood's visual art parallel those of her fiction, poetry, and criti- 
cism. Whether alluding to the literal consummation of "mates" 
by the Robber Bridegroom or the wolf; a Bluebeard's deadly sex- 
ual test, which culminates in his own death; or the female 
Frankenstein's creation of a monster who shadows her, Atwood's 
images reflect, parody, and transform the timeless roles to which 
we have been married. According to True Stories^ "Variations on 
the Word 'Love,''" 

This word is not enough but it will 
have to do. It's a single 
silence, a mouth that says 
O again and again in wonder 
and pain, a breath, a finger- 
grip on a clifFside. You can 
hold on or let go. (p. 83) 

Notes 

I appreciate the assistance of Margaret Atwood, of Katharine Martyn 
and James Ingram of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the Univer- 
sity of Toronto, of Dr. Norman London and the Canadian Embassy, and 
of the University of Northern Colorado. All photographs are by Thomas 
Moore Photography, Inc., Toronto. 

1. The first published print (color) of Atwood's untitled watercolor 
archive-labeled "Death as Bride" (1970) recently appeared in my article 
"Bluebeard's Forbidden Room: Gender Images in Margaret Atwood's 
Visual and Literary Art." That essay discusses "Death as Bride" in greater 
detail. Page numbers to Atwood's True Stories and Two-H ended Poems are 
to the Simon and Schuster editions. 

2. Margaret Atwood, letter to Bill, 18 May 1978, Two-Headed Poems 
Correspondence, Atwood Papers. 

3. See Margaret Atwood Correspondence, 1961-1967, Charles 
Pachter file, letter from Atwood to Charles Pachter, 3 December (year 
omitted, but presumably 1965), the Atwood Papers. Pachter, Atwood's 
friend, "whose visual imagination is quite different from [hers]" 
(Atwood, taped interview), did the original covers of The Circle Game, 
The Edible Woman, and Second Words, as well as the art work for the rare 
editions of Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein, Expeditions, Kaleidoscope 
Baroque, and What Was in the Garden? Despite Pachter's suggestion 
that she use his last illustration, a "sort of cameo- womb- circle- what 
have you" (Pachter to Atwood, "close to Hallowe'en," (1965), Atwood 
did her own Contact edition cover. She is quite aware that many of her 
images, in this and other works, are visual. See, for example, her 3 Febru- 
ary 1965, letter to Pachter. 



214 Sharon R. Wilson 

4. Cf., e.g., J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols. According to Mary 
Daly, the Triple Goddess has been associated with Athena, Neith, Hera- 
Demetcr-Kore, Eire-Fodhla-Banbha, Thetis-Amphitrite-Nereis, and 
Hecate-Artemis-Diana (pp. 75-78), all variants of the Maiden, Mother, 
and Moon or Maiden, Nymph, and Crone to which Atwood also refers in 
Survival (pp. 199-200). 



15 An Interview with 
Margaret Atwood 
20 April 1983 

Jan Garden Castro 



Jan Garden Castro: Your early reading of American comic 
books, Canadian animal stories, and Grimm's fairy tales surface 
in most of your novels. What makes these sources so enduring as 
inspiration, motifs, and metaphors? 

Margaret Atwood: You left out Beatrix Potter. I read a lot as a 
child. There are probably a lot more sources. Grimm's fairy tales 
are important. I think Greek mythology is important, which I 
read in the beginning, in the Charles Lamb Greek Mytholo£iy for 
Children and then went on to read more extensively, and of 
course I studied Latin in high school, which took us right into 
the Aeneid. 

Castro: So you read the Aeneid in Latin? 

Atwood: Some of it, sure. Obviously not the whole thing. And 
Ovid, of course; we d\d Metamorphoses. When I was in university, 
it was part of the honors English course at the University of 
Toronto that you had to take a course that touched on Greek — 
actually I took Greek history at one point, too. But I guess what 
I'm getting around to is that there is a lot of source material. 
When people ask me that question, What was your early influ- 
ence? I usually drag out Grimm's fairy tales, but it's by no means 
the only thing. 

Castro: Did you continue to study mythology to any extent 
at Harvard? 

Atwood: Only as part of studying English. You can't study En- 

215 



2i6 Jan Garden Castro 

glish literature without knowing something about the Bible, and 
Greek and Roman Mythology, and you have to know it, because it 
comes up in so much literature that was written in English. That 
was what people studied, of course, when they went to university. 
They took classics, and, therefore, all of that got into English 
literature. 

Castro: Do you think you overlay the theme of metamorphosis 
on other themes, for instance, in The Journals of Susanna Moodie? 

Atwood: I never have done academic criticism of my own work, 
and I never will. The reason I never have and never will is that 
once authors start making pronouncements about how people 
should read their work, in a dogmatic kind of way, it eliminates 
other readings. 

Castro: It just seemed to me that you had given Susanna 
Moodie more dimensions than the real Susanna Moodie. 

Atwood: The real Susanna Moodie is different from the 
Susanna Moodie that we find by reading her work. Because the 
real Susanna Moodie by no means told all. So let us say there are 
four elements operative here. There is Susanna Moodie we get by 
reading her texts, which never go into things like what she 
thought about her husband; she just never mentions it. The 
prime example is the story she tells about the boy who drowned, 
who wasn't related to her at all. Then there's the throwaway line 
at the end of the story when she says, "I also had a child who 
drowned in this way," and that's all you hear about it. She 
doesn't go on to say how that affected her, how upset she was, 
anything. The whole thing is contained in the metaphor that she 
has given previously of this other child who drowned. So there's 
a lot she doesn't tell. There's a gap between the Susanna Moodie 
of the texts and what we can speculate was the real Susanna 
Moodie, who thought and felt all kinds of things she never wrote 
down because decorum did not permit it. Then there's the 
Susanna Moodie I have created, who is neither of the above. And 
then there's myself, who is neither of any of them. So there are 
four things there. What was the question? 

Castro: I think you've answered the question. 

Atwood: The Susanna Moodie in my book is not the real 
Susanna Moodie nobody will ever really know. Nor is it the 
Susanna Moodie of the text, although a lot of the incidents are 



A n Interview with Margaret A twood 2 1 7 

similar; in fact, they're identical. Nor is it myself, since my atti- 
tude toward the forests that she found so horrible is very positive. 

Castro: I thought the collages for The Journals of Susanna 
Moodie were very beautiful and compelling, and they added an- 
other dimension to the book. Have you done other art? 

Atwood: I was once poster designer when I was at college. It 
was a little business I ran in my cellar. I have always taken an inter- 
est in the covers of my books, some of which I have no control 
over whatsoever, namely the American paperbacks, but the hard- 
backs and the Canadian books, I'm quite closely connected with 
and in some cases, I've actually done the covers. I did the cover to 
Susanna Moodie except that they fooled around with the design 
by putting that red on it, which I don't like. It should have been 
black writing at the top and white against the black. It should have 
been black and white completely. And they did that without con- 
sulting me. 

Castro: Have you ever literally sketched the plots or characters 
for other writings? 

Atwood: Sketched, you mean drawn? Oh, yes. A number of 
my watercolor paintings are, in fact, illustrations for other 
things. 

Castro: Have these been exhibited? 

Atwood: Oh, no. I do it completely privately. The University of 
Toronto has them. I just gave them all to them. 

Castro: Do you also make diagrams, maps, charts of the 
characters? 

Atwood: No, I don't do that. 

Castro: Is there some kind of shape, structure that comes to 
you when, for example, you're starting to work on a novel? 

Atwood: No. That's how people teach things. That's how peo- 
ple draw things on the blackboard. I do that myself. When I used 
to teach, I would draw a diagram o^ Great Expectations, or Ham- 
let. But that's a teaching method, not a writing method. 

Castro: That's very interesting. So the growth is much more 
organic. 

Atwood: It's very organic. 

Castro: Did you read H. Rider Haggard's She when you were 
writing The Edible Woman? 

Atwood: I had read it by that time. What does She have to do 
with The Edible Woman? 



21 8 Jan Garden Castro 

Castro: Well, there's a mummy metaphor in She, in which a 
white African queen has been sleeping with a mummy for two 
thousand years. 

Atwood: She hasn't actually been sleeping with it. Oh, you 
mean the Royal Ontario Museum. There really are mummies in 
the Royal Ontario Museum. It's one of their best exhibits. Sorry, I 
do take a lot of things from real life. Everything in The Edible 
Woman in the museum is exactly as described. They may have re- 
arranged it a bit since I wrote the book; in fact, they've redone the 
museum, but I'm sure they have the same mummies, and they do 
have the little thing of the sand burial. They've got that, and 
they've got the mummy and the mummy case that's closed. It's all 
there. Same with the dinosaurs and Life Before Man. They're just 
exactly as described. 

Castro: Did you have researchers also working with you on Life 
Before Man? 

Atwood: To do the Ukrainian stuff. My right-hand person, 
who is, in fact, from Macedonia, went around and talked to 
some Ukrainian women because at that time I was in Scotland. 
I couldn't get at the stuff. I also sent a young man back at 
Christmas, who was going anyway, and I had him check out 
some of the physical things that I'd already written about. My 
research is always done after the fact. I write the book. Then I re- 
search the details to see if I've got them right. Usually I have. 

Castro: That's a great process. Did you write Surfacing when 
you were in Europe? 

Atwood: I wrote it in England. 

Castro: Was your separation from Canada and the wilderness a 
factor in creating the language and tone of Surfacin^f? 

Atwood: No. I had made the first notes for Surfacin£[ in 1965, 
at the same time I was writing Edible Woman. It goes back that 
far. I had the time in England to actually write the book. And, re- 
member, at that time in my life I was holding down jobs a lot, so 
I couldn't write novels and teach at the same time. I could write 
poetry and teach at the same time, but I couldn't write novels. 
The year in Scotland was a free year so I was able to write the 
book. You can fmd a practice run of the style of Surfacing in a 
couple of short stories that I also wrote in England. "Under 
Glass" is one of them. 



An Interview with Margaret Atwood 219 

Castro: The narrator is nameless and she distances herself from 
some of her — 

Atwood: That's because she's nuts. I often have people come 
up to me after I've written novels and tell me that this is their expe- 
rience. And with Surfacinjji the winner was somebody who came 
up to me after a reading when it had just been published and said, 
"Hi. I'm schizophrenic. I want you to know Surfacing almost put 
me right back, in.'' My narrator isn't really schizophrenic; it's just 
that this schizophrenic girl found it very familiar. 

Castro: One of the most-often-quoted feminist statements in 
Surfacin£i comes at the beginning of the last chapter, which opens, 
"This above all, to refuse to be a victim." I was trying to figure out 
if this phrase is consistent with the narrator's consciousness, if it is 
the author's advice to the narrator similar to the advice of father to 
son in Hamlet, or if it is a fusing of the author and narrator? 

Atwood: It's the narrator. It's all very well to say I refuse to be a 
victim, but then you have to look at the context in which one is or 
isn't a victim. You can't simply refuse. You can refuse to define 
yourself that way, but it's not quite so simple as that. And the 
whole book isn't so simple as that. But it's good advice. 

Castro: In that same chapter, the narrator says that her love for 
Joe is as useless as a third eye. So again this seems to contradict her 
understanding when she says, "We can no longer live by avoiding 
each other." That's part of her character. 

Atwood: This seems to be material for people to write their the- 
ses on. Again, you can't really ask me for an answer. I wrote the 
book, you know, thousands of years ago. The stuff is there. Every- 
thing is there in relation to everything else. That's other people's 
business, if they're interested in those things. And since when was 
anybody ever totally consistent? 

Castro: I think that's a good point. I have a question that no- 
body has ever brought up about Surfacing and that is, and this is 
possibly naive, I'm trying to figure out if the younger brother ex- 
ists or if he is another double on whom the narrator blames child- 
ish acts she doesn't want to admit. 

Atwood: Well, you can have it either way. I would be in favor 
of saying that he exists, but if you want to fool around, you can 
say that nobody exists. In fact, the interesting thing about Sur- 
facin£j was that we switched to Simon and Schuster with it be- 



2 20 Jan Garden Castro 

cause of a junior editor at Atlantic Monthly Press. The senior ed- 
itor went away on vacation and left this guy in charge, and it was 
his opinion that we should take out all the characters except the 
narrator. 

Castro: I can tell from Lady Oracle that it is a struggle to get the 
editors and publishers to leave your work intact. 

Atwood: It's not a struggle for me. It's a struggle for her and for 
a lot of people, but it never has been for me. I've just said no and 
switched publishers. 

Castro: That's a good move. That's a good way to handle it. 

Atwood: It's the only move. 

Castro: Since I've mentioned the third eye — is the poem "The 
Third Eye" based on Buddhist or another Eastern religious con- 
cept that you've secularized? 

Atwood: Most religions believe in something similar, but so 
does physiology. There actually is a physical third eye. Did you 
know that? Well, it exists. A number of old amphibians, extinct 
amphibians, did have an actual third eye, and there is the remnant 
of it right about there in your forehead. People have been experi- 
menting with it to see what it's for, if anything. It's there. I mean, 
it's an actual physical area of the body. 

Castro: I agree with the poem; being conscious of it helps cre- 
ate a whole other circle of vision. 

Atwood: If you want to do the academic thing, I can refer you 
to a poem by Jay MacPherson called "The Third Eye," which is in 
The Boatmen, but a number of people talk about the third eye. In 
fact, one of the areas of the body that you meditate on when 
you're doing yoga is where the third eye is, and one meditation 
technique is to put something there, like a drop of water, or I rec- 
ommend Tiger Balm, on the third eye to help you concentrate 
on it. You can concentrate on that or on the solar plexus. 

Castro: As another extension of this topic, in "On Being a 
Woman Writer," you state writers are eyewitnesses, eye- 
witnesses. Let me ask about the endings of your novels. I mean, 
you intend them to be ambiguous, and you kind of toss the ball of 
yarn into the reader's lap . . . 

Atwood: Where it should be. Are you familiar with Charlotte 
Bronte at all? The first really ambiguous ending is in Villette, 
where the reader is given a choice of two endings, one happy, 
one unhappy. 



An Interview with Mar£iaret Atwood 221 

Castro: I think it's one of the things that's characteristic of 
metafiction. 

Atwood: Well ... A lot of things that are trotted out now as 
new are really quite old. Even metafiction has its eighteenth- 
century antecedents, not to mention things like Apuleius. So no 
technique is really that new. It's just that things have vogues, 
things have fashions. And double endings. Anybody who reads 
nineteenth-century literature in any depth knows about those, 
and indeed about authors who wrote several endings to their 
books, only one of which would appear. Great Expectations has 
two endings, one in which Pip doesn't get together with Estella, 
and one in which he does. Dickens printed the second one, fi- 
nally. That was the one he chose to be the ending. But the first 
one he wrote was the one in which Pip didn't get together with 
Estella and that is probably the more appropriate ending to the 
book. 

Castro: It seems to me in Bodily Harm, which has more social 
realism, that that device also ends up casting doubt on whether or 
not Rennie ever did get out or get involved . . . 

Atwood: Oh, she got involved. She was involved already. 
Whether she got out or not is open to question, because as soon as 
you start using the future tense at the end of a book then of course 
it's open as to whether this actually happened or whether this is 
just what she's postulated is happening. 

Castro: Have you even been to Grenada or any of the other is- 
lands in the Caribbean? 

Atwood: How could I have written that book without . . . 

Castro: Going to that particular country? 

Atwood: That particular country. Not Grenada. The history of 
revolution in Grenada was quite different. Would you like to hear 
it? Grenada happened in the following way: The CIA discovered 
that there were vats of vegetable oil in New York destined for 
Grenada that contained guns. So they contacted the government 
of Grenada and told them this, and said they'd better have a look 
around Grenada and see if they could find any similar vats that 
had already arrived and they did and they did find them, but they 
were empty. So the head left orders for the extermination of all his 
opponents and flew to New York to see if he could track down 
who was sending the guns in. He left orders with the police force, 
some of whom were sympathetic to the revolutionaries and told 



222 Jan Garden Castro 

them. They then seized the radio station and a couple of officials, 
put the officials on the radio to say the revolution had been suc- 
cessful, and that was the revolution. Not a shot was fired, practi- 
cally. No deaths. There you go. That was quite different. The one 
I'm talking about was on a different island, and it did not succeed 
and it was a very confused attempt. But the government did seize 
the opportunity to round up all its political opponents and put 
them into the bottom of this fortress. It's currently used as a wom- 
en's prison. 

Castro: What island is this? 

Atwood: Am I going to tell? It's three islands condensed into 
two, but you can pinpoint it pretty well by looking at a map. It 
said in the book you can see Grenada on a clear day from the head- 
land of one of these islands. All you have to do is go to the appro- 
priate island, go out to the point, and if you can see Grenada from 
it on a clear day, then that's the island. Treasure Island is one of 
my favorite books. I love maps. 

Castro: Could you comment on the telescopic ending of 
Surfacing? 

Atwood: The ending of Surfacing . . . you mean the swiftness 
with which everything happens? There are a number of events 
packed into the ending but they are all events that you could not 
spend a lot of pages of prose on without weakening the impact 
considerably. Anybody who has studied, for instance, the struc- 
ture of tragedy knows that the denouement is always swift. It 
would be fairly intolerable if it weren't, if that stretched out as 
long as the part that led up to it. So I think it would have been a 
structural mistake to have made it a lot longer. You'll notice that 
the ending of Bodily Harm is fairly rapid as well. Things condense. 
But I think real life tends to be that way too. You have a long 
buildup, and then whatever happens, happens, really quite sud- 
denly, the momentous moment when so and so . . . 

Castro: I think of Moby-Dick. 

Atwood: All of a sudden the ship sinks! But you see, you 
couldn't make that ending of Moby-Dick really long. You couldn't 
do it. It's an event. It's swift. There's only so much description 
you can put into that without weakening it. 

Castro: And I think of One Hundred Tears of Solitude, also. 

Atwood: It has a lot of people being polished off all the way 
through. Endings are endings. They're not middles. 



An In terview with Ma rga ret A twood 22^ 

Castro: In terms of nationalism, do you sec nationalism as a uni- 
versal problem? 

Atwood: Do you mean everywhere? It's usually only defined as 
a problem by imperialistic countries, for whom it is a problem be- 
cause it means the colonies are acting up. For the colonies, it's not 
nationalism that's the problem. It's imperialism. It's like the 
woman problem. Well, women are a problem, for men, when they 
start acting up. , 

Castro: Is there another aspect of nationalism — the problem 
of unifying the various provinces? 

Atwood: You mean in Canada? OK. I was talking in world terms. 

Castro: In any country there are always several different parties 
or cultures . . . 

Atwood: Canada is very divided. Definitely. Quebec, as you 
know, is in a constant state of deciding whether or not to remain 
in Canada. It's very fashionable to be regionally inclined these 
days and for Newfoundland to say, we are being trodden upon 
and so on. It has not always been helped by the attitude of the fed- 
eral government. But it comes and goes. Canada has always been a 
conglomerate and so was the United States, originally, and as you 
may recall, you had a few problems that way, yourself, about 1 860. 

Castro: Sherrill Grace has noted that you rev^erse the male pat- 
tern of making cities metaphorically female, and make cities male. 
Why and when do males dominate city spaces? 

Atwood: When don't they? I guess the answer would be in ma- 
ternity shops they don't, in women's clothing stores they don't, in 
certain kinds of restaurants where you get tea they don't, in wom- 
en's clubs they don't. What else is left? That's about it, I think. 

Castro: So are there parallels between the colonization, the vic- 
timization, and Noilnerabilit)' of both women and the land? 

Atwood: This has been often noted. But any of those para- 
digms can be applied to other paradigms. In Surfacing, I think 
there are probably seven layers of that. There's humans vs. the 
land; there's Quebec Hydro vs. the lakes; there's the English vs. 
the French; there's the whites vs. the Indians; there's men vs. 
women; there's Canada vs. the United States. They're all para- 
digms of dominance/subservience. Was that seven? I think it 
was about seven. 

Castro: Picking up on one small aspect of your answer, the In- 
dian myths in Surfacin£[ — are they real? Again, a critic has specu- 



224 7^w Garden Castro 

lated that they're Ojibwa myths of the Great Lynx of Misshipeshu 
as a guiding force, so is this one of the sources? 

Atwood: The sources for the Indian stuff in Surfacin0, apart 
from the sort of general knowledge, was a very specific book 
called Indian Rock Paintings, by Selwin Dewdney. In there you 
can find many, many pictures of rock paintings, photographs, di- 
agrams, plus speculations as to what the paintings were of, which 
nobody really knows. Nobody has really come up with the final 
answer for who made these paintings, what they meant, what they 
were of, why they were where they were. Indians still leave offer- 
ings at these sites. You will still find from time to time something 
somebody has left there. But they've forgotten why they do it. 
There are various stories. They'll tell you why, or whatever, but 
the stories conflict. 

Castro: Often it has to do with a journey. Or you're going to 
the rock and drawing a sign that you're going off someplace. 

Atwood: Nobody knows that. It's simply not known. If you're 
drawing a sign that you're going off someplace, why do you draw 
a water monster? Which is a sacred being. They had other ways of 
signaling that they were going off someplace, and what direction 
they were going in. They didn't have to go through this 
elaborate — and it is elaborate — routine of making these paint- 
ings, which are often in quite inaccessible places. You would have 
had to go to a lot of trouble to get there, to mix the pigments. It's 
not like, you know, putting a piece of chalk on a wall to say I'm 
going to the drugstore or whatever. They were very elaborate and 
a lot of time was spent on some of them. There again it's like the 
cave paintings in Europe. I mean, if you're going to leave a sign 
you're going somewhere, why go into this inaccessible cave? 

Castro: Have you been to the one in the Pyrenees? 

Atwood: No. But I have a lot of pictures of it. 

Castro: Which caves have you been to? 

Atwood: I haven't been to any in Europe. Just the rock paint- 
ings in Canada, which aren't in caves. 

Castro: Missouri has a lot of caves and has one petroglyph site 
that I'm fond of. It's in a forest setting and it just struck me that it 
reminds me very much of the rock paintings in Peterborough in 
terms of the kind of location, very remote. 

Atwood: There are two different kinds of sites. One kind has ac- 



An Interview with Margaret Atwood 225 

tual petroglyphs, which are carvings, and the other has paintings 
that arc made with a pigment and painted onto the rock. 

Castro: Tve seen mostly the petroglyphs. 

Atwood: The petroglyphs would have taken a long time to 
make and for sure had nothing to do with saying Tm going to 
the drugstore. 

Castro: But the ritual significance is definitely there. 

Atwood: There's a ritual significance, but nobody knows what 
it was. 

Castro: Two shamanist themes the critics have noted are the in- 
terrelation of human and animal behavior, and again the appear- 
ance of the spirit, such as the water monster. How did you decide 
to develop this theme? How did you get interested in the Indian 
rock paintings? 

Atwood: They were there. It you're going to put a book in that 
setting, you're then limited to what occurs in that setting, what 
you can find in that setting. That automatically limits and dictates 
a lot of choices. If I were going to set a novel in the South, I mean 
automatically there would be certain things in that book. You 
couldn't avoid it, because that's what's there. And if you're going 
to make a novel with only four characters in it, set in a remote area 
of bush, and you want a place of significance to be in that novel, 
well, you don't have a lot of choice. 

Castro: Do you have quest stories that are your favorites, by 
other people? 

Atwood: Quest stories abound. They are very central to both 
Greek mythology and the Bible. Moses in the wilderness is a quest 
story. And in the Western literary tradition as it developed 
through people like Dante, the descent into Hell is a quest. Where 
don't we find it? Well, we didn't find it until recently in a lot of 
women's literature, because the quest, when it occurred, was very 
internalized. Pride and Prejudice is a quest story, and Mr. Darcy is 
the object of it, but that's stretching things a bit because Elizabeth 
doesn't actually go anywhere. She just stays in the same location, 
but it's an internal uncovering or discovery. 

Castro: One of my favorite quest stories by a nineteenth- 
century woman is George Sand's Consuelo, or The Countess of 
Rudelstadt. That has a wonderful cave, like you've never before ex- 
perienced. You have to go through this elaborate underground 
passage to get there; amazing things take place in the cave. 



226 Jan Garden Castro 

A-nv'ooD: As in The Ma^ic Flute? 

Castro: Yes. It's got some parallels there, and it's got some bio- 
graphical parallels. There's a lot of music in the book also. I think 
that language itself is a theme of your quests. Do you see this as an 
unending search / process? 

Atwood: It's particularly pertinent in Canada because of the lin- 
guistic tensions. But for any writer, language is always both a tool, 
a medium, and something that limits. It's always both things. 

Castro: Do vou make conscious choices to keep the language 
within a certain range? In other words, everyone has a different 
vocabulan' and writing st\'le and actual use of language, and so a 
lot of your use of language seems to be ver)' symbolic so that, by 
repetition, there build up multiple layers of meanings. 

Atwood: The language is limited by what you're describing and 
by the words that are available in it, and by the fact that if you look 
at the shorter Oxford dictionary', a lot of the words in there are 
words nobody ever uses. There's a wonderful game that you can 
play with it called Dictionary. Have you ever played that? Ever}'- 
body sits around and they look in the Oxford Dictionar\^ or the 
equivalent and they find the most obscure, unknown word they 
can, like for instance volar, and they tell what the word is and the 
other players then have to write a dictionary^ definition of the 
word. The intention is to deceive all the other players as to its au- 
thenticity. So you put in Middle English derivations and then us- 
ages to make it sound like an actual entr\'. Then all the entries are 
read out and people vote on them, and the one that gets the most 
votes, if it isn't the real definition, you get points for that. The real 
definition is read out along with the others. I forget how the 
points are allotted. I think if people guess the real one, the person 
picking it gets points off because they haven't picked a deceptive 
enough word. It's a wonderful game, and it leads you to under- 
stand how very, very many words there are in a dictionary' that no- 
body's ever heard of. The actual vocabulary of any writer, 
including Shakespeare, is limited to words people understand, by 
and large. 

C.\sTRo: Talking about Shakespeare — this is going back a cou- 
ple of minutes — how would the narrator of Surfacin^r come up 
with a paraphrase of Shakespeare? "This above all, to refuse to be a 
victim." Don't you think it's a paraphrase of "This above all, to 
thine own self be true"? 



An In terview with Ma rga ret A twood 227 

Atwood: Who doesn't study Shakespeare in high school? We 
took five plays — one a year. In fact, the most prevalent problem 
among young poets, when you take groups of them, is that they 
slide into iambic pentameter without having the least idea they're 
doing it. They do it on purpose. The young kids don't realize what 
they're doing. They just write iambic pentameter lines because 
they've had Shakespeare in high school. It's very pervasive. You 
know, once you've studied iambic pentameter, it's hard to get 
that line rhythm out. 

Castro: I think American high-school education is usually not 
that rigorous, unless you're going to a small private school. 

Atwood: Well, we took that. We took T^^ikf/7/««/5ff/7^f/o55. We 
took Tess of the D'Urbervilles. We took The Mayor ofCasterbrid0e 
in grade 10. 

Castro: Was this a public high school." 

Atwood: Yes. I studied Latin, French, German. This was in 
Toronto. In Ontario, this was a standard curriculum with set 
exams at the end of it that were provincewide, so the curriculum 
was the same for everybody in the province. That's changed. 
There was a period in the sixties when they weren't doing that, but 
they brought it back. 

Castro: Do you think this might account for the fact there are 
usually bigger audiences for poetry in Canada than there are in the 
United States? 

Atwood: There is a bigger reading audience for poetry in Can- 
ada than there is in the United States, per capita. It's bigger. But 
the actual sizes of the audience vary according to the city that 
you're in. I can give a poetry reading in Canada and there'll be 700 
people at it, but I can give one here and there'll be 700 people at it. 
It just depends what city and where and all of that. If you look at 
book sales, then you can see that, taking the operative size of the 
English reading audience in Canada at 14 million, book sales are 
way, way higher per capita. But there are 223 million people in the 
United Sates, so that actual numbers can be greater in the United 
States, although the per capita ratio is lower. 

Castro: Would you like to talk about your experiences 
working with Anansi Press and organizing the Writers' Union 
of Canada? 

Atwood: I didn't really do much organizing of the Writers' 
Union of Canada. Graeme Gibson did it. I was one of the found- 



228 Jan Garden Castro 

ing members, and I've been a chairman. I don't like organiza- 
tions. I don't like working in them. I do it out of a sense of duty. 
Anansi Press — I put some money into it in the beginning. I 
wasn't in Toronto at the time. I went on as a member of the board 
in 1971 and edited the poetry list for a few years. I wouldn't say I 
was a driving force, though. I certainly kept them solvent. Survi- 
val made the difference to their remaining in existence or not. Ba- 
sically, given the choice, I would rather not work under those 
circumstances. 

Castro: I thought it was very gracious of you to do that because 
I realize it's such a different process from writing. 

Atwood: Editing? I didn't mind the actual editing. When you 
work with a small publisher like that, as you know, they're always 
on the verge of bankruptcy. Keeping ahead of the bill collector 
was a bit of a strain. Writers in Canada have more of a sense of 
owing something back to the community, and they are more will- 
ing to take on things like that. There were some attempts being 
made to organize a writers' union here in the States. Did anything 
ever come of that? 

Castro: It's still in the process, but the politicking is fairly . . . 
intense and I would say, unpleasant. 

Atwood: My sense of it was that they would have a lot of trou- 
ble, partly because it's such a big country, and if you tried to pack 
all the writers into a meeting, where would you put them? It's just 
so huge. The other feeling was that those who've made it usually 
don't want to have anything to do with organizations like that. 
There is something called the Authors Guild that people belong 
to. I voiced an opinion in public a while ago that I thought it 
would be difficult here, and I got this outraged letter from one of 
the organizers saying I shouldn't say things like that, because it 
was counterproductive and so on, but it's the truth. It is going to 
be difficult here. More difficult. Canada is a small country. It has a 
manageable number of writers. You can put them all in a room, 
and therefore it can work. But here — where would you put them? 
It would be like a meeting of Jehovah's Witnesses or something. 
You'd have to hire a stadium. And then people would immedi- 
ately feel alienated and not involved because it's too big, and 
other people are running it, and they don't feel in contact with it 
and all those kinds of problems. 

Castro: In Canada, it must be nice to get together with differ- 



An Interview with Margaret Atwood 229 

ent writers from different places. 

Atwood: It's the only time we get to see one another, because 
the distances are so huge, that the only other times you get to see 
people is when youVe on a reading tour. When we started the 
union, people met who had ever met, at all. So they liked it for that 
reason. It was a chance to actually be in contact with people that 
they otherwise wouldn't have. 

Castro: Is the danger of Canada being Americanized 
diminishing? 

Atwood: Oh, no. It's increasing. This big-dish television is just 
going to obliterate national border of all kinds. 

Castro: You mean you get American programs? 

Atwood: We get them all the time. We're going to be getting 
more of them. Soon it will be possible to get something like eighty 
channels and that's going to change things around a lot down 
here, too. It's going to be very bad for the networks. They will no 
longer have the big monopoly they once had. The whole area of 
communications is something we pay a lot of attention to, and it 
is pretty much a one-way mirror. We can see everything you do, 
and you can't see a thing we do. There's no reason for that to 
change. This is real politique. This is a huge country, and there's no 
particular reason for people to pay attention to Canada. There 
would be if we suddenly became Communist and established Rus- 
sian missile bases pointing at you. That would force attention just 
as when Cuba did that. Everybody knew where Cuba was, sud- 
denly. But the way things are now, although we are your biggest 
foreign market, there's no particular reason for you to know those 
things. Life is life. If there isn't a reason, people don't know them. 
Whereas there's a very good reason for us to know what you're 
doing, because it affects us so immediately. So don't feel bad 
about it. 

Castro: When I was in Canada, I traveled from Vancouver to 
Ontario, and I have great memories of two million acres of land at 
Algonquin Park with only one road through it — and space ! I have 
memories of beautiful spaces and lakes. 

Atwood: Beautiful spaces that are being killed at the moment. 

Castro: I haven't seen that, but it's too bad to hear about it. Yet 
it must be worse to have to experience it. 

Atwood: Well, it's the acid rain problem, as you know. It's fall- 
ing from you. Don't you remember the big uproar about this film 



230 Jan Garden Castro 

on acid rain that was declared to be the product of enemy agents 
by the United States government? And you have to get a certifi- 
cate if you're showing it, and it just won an Oscar. And her accept- 
ance speech was, "You folks sure know how to treat an enemy 
agent." 

Castro: What are some of your commitments to expressing 
things that females experience." 

Atwood: I'm a writer. You automatically express those things 
because you're a writer. You can't help it. If you write about a 
woman in this society, this society being what it is, you automati- 
cally express those things, unless you're writing Harlequin ro- 
mances. And even those are an upside-down expression of the 
same thing. I mean, you're not writing about a society in which 
things are the same for everybody. They're not the same for every- 
body. That doesn't mean to say that everything is automatically 
worse for women than it is for men. It's not. Some things are 
worse for men. But you don't have to have an a priori commit- 
ment in order to express certain things. They're unavoidable. Just 
as Jane Austen expressed certain things whether she knew it or 
not, because she was writing about that kind of society. Her books 
are really how-to books: given the fact of being a woman in that 
kind of society, here's how you manage it better than otherwise. 
It's better to be Eleanor than Mary Ann. You get along better. 

Castro: I'm thinking of this particular image that is in both 
True Stones and Second Words of a woman in childbirth who is 
being tortured because her legs are tied. 

Atwood: That's right out of Nazi Germany. It's real. That's a 
real-life event. All of the things in that poem sequence "Notes To- 
wards a Poem That Can Never Be Written," they're all real. You 
don't have to make stuff like that up, because it exists. 

Castro: I think it's very powerful that you're dealing with it so 
directly. One critic has written that in Sexual Politics — I mean 
Power Politics, but that's what it's about — the characters are eye- 
witnesses observing the sexual politics. 

Atwood: But that's how people live. You can't not observe it 
unless you're deaf, dumb, and blind. It's just there. Now you can 
observe it, and there are various interpretations you can put on 
what you've seen, just as anybody who's ever attended a trial will 
know that witness A looking at the car crash will have seen the 
green car crash into the blue car, and witness B will have seen the 



An Interview with Margaret Atwood 231 

blue car stop suddenly and then the green car crash, and witness C 
may have even seen the blue car back up. It depends who's look- 
ing. But the events are there. They're there to be seen. 

Castro: Do those things you've just listed on what the eyewit- 
nesses are going to report have something to do with who we are 
as women? 

Atwood: Of course. And it also has to do with who we are and 
how old we are, and what we feel we can say and what we feel we 
can't say, and what we automatically repress so instantaneously 
that we don't even see it. You know, that's just gone. Let's go back 
to Susanna Moodie. There are a lot of things that she didn't say, 
partly because they weren't choices; they weren't available to be 
said. She wouldn't even have considered saying them. Writing her 
memoirs, it wouldn't have even entered her consciousness to put 
in a chapter on her sex life. That wouldn't have been a choice. It 
would just be completely blotted out. I think that probably in a 
century or so people will look back at writing of this period and 
say, why were they repressing X? We don't know what X is yet. Be- 
cause we aren't conscious of it. We don't know what they are 
going to say that we were repressing. But I'm sure there's some- 
thing. I'm sure there are a lot of things that somebody looking 
back at us will be able to see that we just don't see because it's not a 
choice for us to see it. It's not part of our vocabulary at this time. 
So I think a lot of the energy in women's writing over the past ten 
years, and there has been a tremendous amount of energy, has 
come from being able to say things that once you couldn't say. 
And therefore, being able to see things that once you couldn't see, 
or that you would have seen but repressed, or that you would have 
seen and put another interpretation on, and those things are 
changing all the time and that's part of the interesting thing about 
writing. One point of view will be established and then somebody 
else will say yes, but . . . Yes, but what about ... I think there was a 
period, for instance, in the early seventies, when one party line 
was that all men are bad. By nature of being men, they were auto- 
matically bad. And there is no point in talking to them or having 
anything to do with them. As soon as that point of view is ex- 
pressed, somebody else says yes, but . . . But what about Henry 
whom I've known for years? 

Castro: I think that even the leaders of that particular line of 
thought were the ones who changed. 



232 Jan Garden Castro 

Atwood: In some cases, yes. In some cases, no. Or in some 
cases, they dropped out of sight and didn't go on to express any- 
thing else. It's a constant, ongoing process. Does the fact that we 
are women alter what we see? What we report? It has to, but no- 
body knows what the neutral stand would be. There's not such 
thing as a person who's neither a man nor a woman. So we don't 
know that person in between, what that completely objective 
Martian would say. We've never had an example of it. I think one 
thing that the women's movement has pointed out is that the fact 
of being male alters what men say. Whereas once we thought they 
were doing just objective truth, and it's obvious now that every- 
thing passes through a filter. Doesn't mean it's not true in some 
sense. It just means that nobody can claim to have the absolute, 
whole, objective, total, complete truth. The truth is composite, 
and that's a cheering thought. It mitigates tendencies toward 
autocracy. 

This interview was professionally recorded by the American Audio 
Prose Library (Columbia, Missouri); it took place in the Women's 
Buildin£i, Washington University, St. Louis. 



1 6 A Conversation 

Margaret Atwood and Students 
Moderated by Francis X. Gillen 



Q: Who are some of your favorite authors? 

A: I was trained as a Victorianist; that was my field of study. 
Some of my favorite authors are the old nineteenth-centur\' chest- 
nuts like George Eliot's midcentur\' Victorian novel Middle- 
march. Dickens is one of my favorites. You're wondering about 
modern day? The American author who has had the most influ- 
ence on Canadian writing is Faulkner. I read Faulkner at quite an 
early age, and I thought, "This man has a wonderful imagination; 
look at all the stuff he has made up." And then I met someone 
from Oxford, Mississippi, who told me he didn't make anything 
up. He just changed the names. So I was quite impressed by that. 
More modern writers — there are a number of women authors 
that I like a lot apart from the nineteenth-centur\' ones that I was 
brought up with. There are a number of British ones. I don't know 
if you know the names: Fay Weldon, Margaret Drabble, Angela 
Carter. Linda Gregg from the United States is a poet whom some 
of the writers here may have heard of. 

Q: Is there any special process you use when you write? I used to 
know someone who locked himself in his room with seven bottles 
of whiskey and wrote. 

.V No, I also have a family, and if you have a family and you are 
involved with your family, you do not lock yourself in a room. I 
lock myself in my room at certain hours of the day, but I don't 
lock myself up for days at a time. I come out in the evenings and in 
the mornings. I write when my child is at school. 

Q: Why do you say that writing can be political? 

A: When you go to the rest of the world, nobody even thinks 

233 



234 Francis X. Gillen 

about this question. They assume that a writer writes about every- 
thing. In the States there is a tradition of writing that encom- 
passes things hke that: Melville, Whitman, Doctorow. Even The 
Great Gatsby is a political novel; it examines the fabric of social 
life. Any novelist who is not just writing total fantasy is interact- 
ing with life. It may be that you can write the life of a person in the 
United States who never thinks a political thought. I can hardly 
imagine people so isolated that they have no such thoughts. But 
somehow its been decided generally that the Freudian subcon- 
scious is OK for art, but one's conscious political decisions are 
not. I don't know why that is. It's not universal. It's just an as- 
sumption that you often run into in the minds of people who say 
it's too political. What they mean is it's too political to be art. 
There are certain things that have been designated as OK for art, 
namely trees, sunsets, love, and death. 

Q: Who are some Canadian authors to read? 

A: Well, there are probably some that you may have read al- 
ready, without knowing that they are Canadian. Robertson 
Davies is widely available, particularly the Deptford Trilogy. Alice 
Munro. You can easily get hold of Canadian writing by writing to 
the following address: Longhouse Book Store, 626 Yonge Street, 
Toronto, Ontario M4Y 12B. Alice Munro deals particularly with 
lives of girls and women. Try Mordecai Richler, Timothy Findley, 
Marian Engel. 

Q: Could you talk about your work for Amnesty International? 

A: Amnesty was quite small in Canada a number of years ago. It 
needed to raise funds, and I was involved in some of that. Am- 
nesty is a very worthy organization. It is apolitical, it doesn't make 
choices of who to support or whether the country is right-wing or 
left-wing. It's just dealing with violations of human rights. 
They're also doing investigations into torture worldwide — on 
the increase I might add. The reason I did that: there are only a few 
countries left where you can. This is one of them. Canada is one, 
Britain is one, some of the Western European countries. In a lot 
of countries Amnesty is outlawed. You can be put in jail for just 
belonging to it. 

Q: Were you a good English student? 

A: One of my high-school teachers said to one of my friends 
who went back to school to visit, "There was nothing distinctive 
about her at all that I can remember." I didn't become a good En- 



A Conversation 235 

glish student until I was in twelfth grade. I was quite good after 
that. The reason was that I got a good teacher I liked, and when 
you have a teacher you like, you tend to put more effort into it. I 
started writing poetry then, and she once made a wonderful com- 
ment: "Well, I can't understand it, dear, so it must be good." 

Q: Which of your own books do you like the best? 

A: The next one. Otherwise why would you keep going? You 
never feel that anything you have ever done is perfect. If you did, 
you would stop. 

Q: Margaret, can you tell us about the novel you're working 
on now? 

A: That is the one question I cannot answer because I never talk 
about the writing Tm doing now. It's my second superstition. My 
first is that I don't like anyone using my typewriter. 

Q: You have recently returned from Cuba: What are your per- 
ceptions about Cuba? Is it really an evil place? 

A: Well, I have something to compare it with because I've been 
to lots of "evil places." I've been around the world twice. First 
time I stopped in Iran and Afghanistan. Of all the evil places we 
have to choose from, those are among the evilest now, I'd say. 
What the Russians are doing in Afghanistan is pretty evil, and 
what Iran is doing to itself is pretty evil. Just to give us something 
to compare Cuba with. Number two, I've also been in other East- 
bloc countries, so I've got some of those to compare it with as 
well. This spring I was in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Not at the 
invitation of the governments, but at the invitation of our Cana- 
dian embassies there, which meant that I did not have official 
sanctions or a guided tour, and I didn't have to go to any knitting 
factories. But I did get to speak with a lot of people who were not 
officially sanctioned spokespersons for those countries, and it is 
obvious to me that those regimes are not loved. The people feel 
they are conquered people and in the control of a foreign power. 
The number of part\^ members in those countries is very low. 

What I felt about the Cubans was that they feel closer emotion- 
ally to Americans than they do to Russians, which is obvious once 
you think about it. They feel temperamentally more akin to Amer- 
icans. They have no feelings of animosity towards individual 
American people. They did not see Castro's takeover primarily in 
terms of political theories. They saw it in terms of a continuation 
of something that has been going on since 1850. They started out 



236 Francis X. Gillen 

back then having a colonial revolution against Spain, as the U.S. 
had a revolt against Britain. They wanted to be independent. They 
didn't want to be dictated to by Spain. That one revolution didn't 
work, so they continued it at the end of the nineteenth century. 
The big hero is a poet, Jose Marti. That revolt was brutally fought: 
talk about war atrocities. Then the battleship Maine blew up in 
the Havana harbor; nobody knows to this day who blew it up. The 
States intervened, settled the war and imposed their own condi- 
tions. Cuba was then somewhat run by the United States for the 
next fifty years, and what that meant in practical terms for them 
was that there were many gambling casinos and a great deal of 
prostitution. It's estimated that one of every four Cuban families 
at that time had a female employed as a prostitute. This was insult- 
ing to Cuban men. I think unless you understand that, you don't 
understand Castro, because Castro is not seen as some kind of 
Marxist person, but as the person who continued what Jose Marti 
had been doing, and when people talk about this stuff they don't 
talk theory. There weren't any equivalents of the lectures you get 
in East Germany and those other places. What they talk about is 
their own history and social conditions before the revolution and 
after. I would say that there are probably some things that you as 
Americans would find onerous — gasoline shortages and so on — 
but the people in general don't seem to find things nearly as oner- 
ous as people in Czechoslovakia and Poland do. 

The Russians are there in Cuba, and they have a great big em- 
bassy which they are still building. How is it referred to by the Cu- 
bans." In a joking fashion behind everybody's back they call it the 
"Control Tower." The Russians don't overtly boss them around, 
but I'm sure they have some influence on policy. I think it's very 
unfortunate that the U.S. did not make their peace with Cuba 
quite early on. If they had, the Russians would not be there. As for 
whether Cubans like Castro or not, most of them seem to. 

Q: How are things for the people — especially the writers — in 
Cuba? 

A: I talked to all kinds of people individually when there was no- 
body else listening, and they're not dumb. They read the papers 
from North America all the time. They keep up and watch what's 
going on. They were quite worried a couple of months ago that 
the U.S. was going to bomb their airport. They ordered an alert. 
Note that they gave weapons to their citizens, and everybody is 



A Conversation 237 

part of the citizens' army — if they felt really insecure about 
things, they surely wouldn't do that. If the Soviet Union had 
given weapons to all the Poles, imagine what would have hap- 
pened! Immediately there would have been a war. Cuba evidently 
doesn't feel insecure about doing that. 

I asked a lot of questions about how things are for writers — 
what about the fact that they rounded up homosexuals and put 
them in concentration camps? They said immediately that was a 
mistake. They reversed that policy; it is not being done any more. 
I asked about the writing, and I pushed quite hard on this. People 
started giggling. "What would happen for instance if you wrote a 
novel which had a nasty portrait of a Russian in it?" They giggled 
because they thought the idea was funny. They said, "We went 
through a ten-year period during which things were somewhat 
'gray and Asiatic' " They said that was over now. What they 
meant was what a writer writes about was interpreted more nar- 
rowly back then. They feel that they can write about anything — 
except that they cannot attack Castro or the official government. 
By that they mean not that you can't criticize government poli- 
cies, but you can't say, let's overthrow them. But can you say that 
here? Can you say, let's overthrow the U.S. government? If you 
did, you would have a bunch of secret service men on your back 
quite instantly. 

As a member of Amnesty International, I am always on the 
lookout for who is in jail and why. All I can tell you about Cuba is 
the trend is towards letting them out. On the PEN (Poets, 
Essayists, Novelists) list now there are about seventeen names. 
When I asked about those names, nobody had even heard of any 
of them. They said, well, it is true that people get put in jail for 
blowing things up, and then they declare afterwards that they are 
writers. The Dutch ambassador there is quite a wonderful 
person — he doesn't act like an ambassador. He rides a bicycle, for 
example. I asked him what was the real truth, and he said that cer- 
tainly no major writers were in jail at the moment. We also said to 
them. What would happen if you did write something like that 
(anti-Castro), and they said nobody would publish it. So, there is 
that degree of control. 

Q: What do women wear? 

A; Women wear high-heeled shoes. They strangely enough do 
not wear what you would expect them to wear — mainly cotton 



238 Francis X. Gillen 

dresses. Why? Because they export all that. Men are very flirta- 
tious. I asked about rape. The death penalty is for two things. One 
is for trying to kill Castro the second time, the other is for rape. Re- 
member what happened in the fifty years before this. Not only was 
there a lot of prostitution and dirty nightclub shows, but there 
was a lot of violence. The old regime was an assassinating regime 
and also a ver\' violent one. I met somebody there who had grown 
up at that time. Machine-gun fire at night was a very normal 
sound; you just expected it. What El Salvador is now, Cuba was 
then, and that's another thing you have to remember when you're 
talking about evil places. The other interesting thing about 
women: there is a high divorce rate. I asked why is that? They said, 
a young girl growing up is still considered to be under the parental 
control of her father, but once you get married, that stops and you 
can do what you like. They get married, and then they get di- 
vorced, and then they can do what they like. They also said the 
high divorce rate had something to do with the crowded living 
conditions. Divorces are cheap. If you do get a divorce, there is the 
problem of where to move, because you can't just move into an 
apartment there. There aren't any available. I asked, "Do men hit 
their wives?" They said, "What?" Then they said that would not 
be natural. Hitting is not socially acceptable. Infidelity, flirtation, 
yes, but hitting, no. 

Q: What about Angola? 

A: I have a feeling that the Angola situation shows there are no 
free trips. You must remember that when the U.S. cut off trade 
with Cuba, Cuba was financially isolated. They were up the creek, 
and they tried to make it on their own for a number of years. Fi- 
nally they just couldn't do it. 

It's like any other foreign country; the things that are the 
most different are the things that are the most interesting. You 
can sit and tell them stories about wild animals and they think it 
is so interesting. 

Any encroachment on freedom of speech, freedom to publish, 
freedom to say what vou think should be stopped immediately be- 
cause lights are going out all over the world. There are greater and 
greater encroachments on those freedoms here and there and 
everywhere. There is also a publication czWcdIndexon Censorship, 
which is very informed. So, in your country I would say try to keep 
things as open as possible. One would hope in a country like this 



A Conversation 239 

there would be enough people with their little antennas up to no- 
tice any closing down, but I would say that any group that tries to 
tell you that voicing a certain opinion is un-American, or against 
God, or any of those other hammers that people use to make other 
people shut up, is to be resisted. I think you should go back to 
your first principles of the American Revolution, and you should 
keep to those. 

The American Revolution is the revolution that inspired other 
revolutions all over the world. Go back there and look at your 
Constitution — keep that firmly in mind and ask yourself, is some- 
body trying to violate this; is somebody trying to overturn this? Is 
some kind of monopoly being established? America is tradition- 
ally a country where the voice of every individual is supposed to 
have equal rights, through the vote. I was alarmed to see that only 
fifty percent of the people voted in the last presidential election, 
and that was considered a lot. Is that a democracy, is that a func- 
tioning democracy? So the other thing you could do is help in 
voter registration. Now your particular custom of having people 
declare Democratic or Republican when they are registered as vot- 
ers to me seems like the Thought Police in George Orwell. But, 
anyway, it's the system you have, and it's what you've got to work 
with. But try to convince people that their feelings of helplessness 
and being adrift needn't be. They ought to register and they ought 
to vote. 

Q; Could you suggest a good topic for a research paper? 

A: I'm not a person to ever tell another person what he or she 
should be writing about. I think that you should key in more to 
world news. U.S. papers tend to do local coverage. Any fire, any 
catastrophe, any murder — that hits the papers; they do state stuff, 
and they do things about states right around them. They do na- 
tional and U.S. state things. I would say write to your newspaper 
and say, I want more world news, or tell your television station, I 
want to know more about what is going on in the world. It's not 
that I'm not interested in things here, but I would like to know 
more about things there. Now in Canada, we have the opposite 
problem. We have lots of world news; it's just that we sometimes 
skimp on the Canadian news. 

Q: Would you consider the exclusion of the media in Grenada 
dangerous? 

A: I would. The exclusion of the media seems more than any- 



240 Francis X. Gillen 

thing a danger signal to me. They know perfectly well that during 
the Nicaragua uprising, if the media hadn't been there covering it, 
they probably could have put in U.S. troops. Because what you 
don't know about, you can't voice an opinion about, can you? So 
if you must, subscribe to the Manchester Guardian. Get the Wash- 
in£fton Post along with it. The U.S. is now a world power. It can't 
go back to being a colony. So, therefore, one must take responsi- 
bility. And taking responsibility means learning about the things 
you're going to be involved in. Do you know about the Philip- 
pines? It's coming toward you. I would say, try to inform yourself 
as much as you can, and ask of your media — demand — that they 
provide this coverage. They will respond to public pressure. If 
people say this is what we want, then they'll do it. 

Q: In a lot of instances the media's general coverage seems criti- 
cal of the government. They are being slapped right down. Could 
you comment? 

A: The media also has to be responsible. They can't just say any 
old thing about anybody. But any reporter knows that. You have 
to try to get your facts absolutely straight. And if you are going to 
make a controversial statement, you better have some backup for 
it. Otherwise you will get slapped. But libel laws are much looser 
in the United States than they are in Canada. The media in Can- 
ada are more pussy-footed as a result. The coverage is wider but we 
don't have people who are willing to do what the Washin£fton Post 
did with Watergate. They're too timid. So we don't have a lot of 
hard-hitting investigation journalism about our own politicians. 
So, I would just say to your media, get out there into the rest of the 
world and tell us what's going on even though it may not directly 
affect Americans, because ultimately it will. 

Q: What responsibilities do you see for the writers and the art- 
ists concerning the nuclear trend? 

A: The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world in which, if 
you ask people in earnest what their responsibilities are, the first 
answer you'll probably get from most of them is, my responsibil- 
ity is to be true to myself and to my inner integrity. You'll get that 
speech. And this is the only country where you will get that 
speech. In the rest of the world that kind of answer wouldn't make 
sense to the people; of course they would assume one has inner in- 
tegrity, but doesn't that include other people? I think what hap- 
pened here was there was a lot of uproar in the late sixties, and 



A Conversation 241 

people wrote a lot of that kind of poetry, and the generation that 
came right after that reacted against it. I have nothing against 
that. It's essential, but if you contemplate your soul for a certain 
time, you'll get to the point where you'll realize that your soul is 
not in a box. It's not sealed off from everybody else, and this par- 
ticular issue, the nuclear issue, I don't consider "politics" in any 
limited sense. I consider it something like the Black Death. The 
Black Death wasn't "politics," but it sure killed a lot of people. I 
refuse to dictate'to people what they should write about, but I will 
point out to Americans who believe that art is over here and poli- 
tics is over there, that it's not two boxes. Other writers in other 
countries don't have that problem. What people are afraid of here 
is that if they write political poetry, some reviewer is going to say 
it's not poetr\' and sure, you take that risk, but what is life without 
risks? I give unto you Carolyn Forche. Is that poetry or not.> It's 
certainly political. She had trouble getting that book published. 
Why." Because people she showed it to said, this is too political. 
All I'm saying is it's an anomaly to say that political things are not 
artistic. Political engagement can give a writer tremendous 
energy. 

Q: Could you give an example of how art and poetry go to- 
gether? Or don't? 

A: There's a book you should read by Lewis Hyde, The Gift. It's 
not poetry and it's not prose fiction and it's not criticism. It's 
partly anthropology and partly folklore and partly sociology. 
Partly economics and partly political theory. Partly literary criti- 
cism. It's a study of the gift as a medium of exchange. He makes a 
distinction between the commodity exchange — the market econ- 
omy — and the gift exchange. He puts art in the gift-transaction 
economy, and he examines this through primitive societies, 
through art, through folktales, through all kinds of things. Still, 
all ideologies have trouble with writers. No exceptions. Because 
ideologies have a "should" and writers are an eccentric bunch of 
people; they don't always like having their feet crammed into 
those particular ideological shoes, and they often refuse to put 
their feet into those shoes. That's the way it will always be unless 
we have some kind of dictatorship. So writing is exploration. Ex- 
ploration is going into a territory without knowing what you may 
find. It is then recording as accurately as you can what you do find 
rather than what you think you should find. 



242 Francis X. Gillen 

Q: I was reading in the paper today how popular you are in Can- 
ada, and it struck me as very odd that a poet could be so popular 
because in America poets have difficulty, say, selling five thou- 
sand books. What do you perceive as the difference between Ca- 
nadian people and American people that makes this possible? 

A: When I was growing up, as a young writer in the 1960s in 
Canada, it was very hard to publish anything. The writing com- 
munity was very small. What that meant in Canada at that time 
was that poetry became the dominant literary form for about ten 
years. Why? Because it was cheap to do. The number of pages in a 
book was smaller, and you could do it in your cellar. You could 
have little printing presses, and that's how most poets of my gen- 
eration started. They were published by themselves in print ini- 
tially in their cellars. And I did that too. In 1961 there were about 
four literary magazines and most of those were recent. In 1965 
there began to be a cultural explosion that has not stopped, and 
the increase in the readership was astronomical. It was partly be- 
cause the school-leaving age of Canadians was going up so they 
were more educated. Canadians before that read books, but not 
Canadian books: they had the usual colonial attitude (which cor- 
responded with the United States' in 1820), that things in their 
own country were of negligible interest and that the important 
things were elsewhere. The audience has increased geometrically 
now, but the holdover from that is that poetry was considered a 
dominant literary form for many years and Canadians still have 
the highest per capita readership of poetry in the English- 
speaking world (compared with the U.S., Britain, Australia, and 
New Zealand). 

But I also write novels. My highest selling book, initially, was 
the book of criticism {Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian 
Literature) that I wrote in 1972 and that sold a hundred thousand 
copies, which surprised me because I expected to sell five. That 
shows the change. Suddenly the Canadians were interested in 
their own literature. 

Q; Do you think Canada cares more about people and America 
more about money? 

A; Do I think Canada is more people oriented and America is 
more economically oriented? Canadians have the sense that 
things have to be spread around, that you can't let one part of the 
country be very, very rich and another part be very poor. They try 



A Conversation 243 

to equalize things in that way. There are a lot of differences. It's 
not that Canadians aren't interested in money, but that they have 
other interests as well. They did a survey with Canadian college 
students, and the number one priority was the economy. The 
number two and three priorities were freedom of speech and 
equality for women. The big seller in Canada in the late sixties 
through the seventies was a man called Pierre Berton, and what he 
writes is popular history of Canada. He did a history of the rail- 
roads and the War of 1 81 2. The Canadians eat these up. They don't 
learn a lot at school about this, not as much as should be taught. I 
was taught ancient Egyptian history, Greek and Roman history. 
Renaissance history, European and British history, and American 
history, but not much Canadian history. It is still not stressed as 
much as it ought to be. 

Q: How do you go about writing something with your own 
experiences? 

A: That's one of the most interesting parts of writing. If you be- 
lieve that writing is merely self-expression, then you'll forever be 
trapped in your own persona, or a character very much like your- 
self. But if you look at novels through the ages you'll see a great 
many novels that did not do that. If you hang on to the self- 
expression approach for two or three novels, you'll pretty much 
be exhausted, unless you live a wild life. I think that's what writing 
novels is like, that you do not impose yourself on a character all 
the time. To try to think the way another person would think, or 
feel the way you think they feel. If I'm doing a character that has a 
certain job that I don't have, I usually give them a job that I wish I 
had or would like to have. I usually write first and then research 
after, I have to admit, and often I find that I guess right. For in- 
stance, for the paleontologist in Life Before Man, I wrote a book 
first and then went to the museum and asked if they had a person 
who had this kind of job. They said yes, and lo and behold, she was 
a woman. I asked her if she would show me what she did. She did, 
and afterwards, she read my manuscript and told me, "This is how 
I feel!" These are the nice payoffs in what I do. 

Honors Conversation held at the University of Tampa, 25 January 
1 987, taped by Daniel Comiskey, transcribed by Rachel Stein. Pro- 
gram arranged by Kathryn VanSpanckeren. 



Works Cited 

Notes on. Contributors 

Index 



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Notes on Contributors 



Elizabeth R. Baer is Dean of the College and Professor of En- 
glish at Washington College, Maryland. She has published on 
Charlotte Bronte and Jean Rhys and served on a national advisory 
board for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the 
American Library Association. Dr. Baer regularly reviews schol- 
arly books for Choice and Booklist and is currently preparing a 
book-length manuscript on the diaries of five nineteenth-century 
Virginia women. 

Pamela Bromberg is Associate Professor and Chair of the En- 
glish Department at Simmons College in Boston. Her recent pub- 
lications include essays on Margaret Drabble, Lillian Hellman, 
and William Blake. She continues to work on narrative technique 
in contemporary women's fiction. 

David Buchbinder teaches English in the School of Communi- 
cation and Cultural Studies at the Curtin University of Technol- 
ogy, Western Australia. His scholarly interests include contem- 
porary literary theory, with particular reference to poetry, and 
Renaissance literature, especially drama. He is currently writing 
a text for students on contemporary theories of reading, applied 
to poetry. 

Jan Garden Castro has taught at Southern Illinois University at 
Edwardsville, Webster University, and Lindenwood College. She 
has published essays and poetry, and was founding editor o^ River 
Styx (St. Louis) and founder of the Margaret Atwood Society. 
Her critical biography The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, pub- 
lished by Crown in 1985, is in its sixth printing. 

257 



258 Notes on Contributors 

Arnold E. Davidson, Professor of English at Michigan State 
University, has coedited The Art of Mar^iaret Atwood: Essays in 
Criticism and authored books on Mordecai Richler, Jean Rhys, 
and Joseph Conrad. A Canadian citizen, he is the author or 
coauthor of some sixty essays, mostly on contemporary British 
and Canadian hterature. He is past copresident of the Margaret 
Atwood Society, has previously published five articles on her poe- 
try and fiction, has presented numerous papers on her fiction, and 
has organized and chaired two MLA annual convention panels on 
Atwood's work. 

Francis X. Gillen is Professor of English at the University of 
Tampa and Director of its Honors Program. His extensive publi- 
cations on the modern novel and drama include articles on Vir- 
ginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Mary McCarthy, Donald Barthelme, 
Joseph Heller, Henry James, Tennessee Williams, and Harold 
Pinter. Currently he is coediting the Pinter Newsletter and work- 
ing on a book on Harold Pinter. 

Sherrill E. Grace is Professor of English at the University of Brit- 
ish Columbia. She has published Violent Duality: A Study of 
Mar£iaret Atwood (1980) and The Voya^re That Never Ends: 
Malcolm Lowry's Fiction (1982) and coedited the collection of es- 
says Mar^iaret Atwood: Lan£ua£ie, Text, and System (1983). The au- 
thor of thirty articles on modern literature and interdisciplinary 
studies, she has recently finished a book-length study on expres- 
sionism in North America. 

Gayle Greene, Assistant Professor of English at Scripps College 
in Claremont, California, has published numerous articles on 
Shakespeare, feminist criticism, and contemporary women writ- 
ers. She coedited The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of 
Shakespeare (1980) and Making a Difference: Feminist Literary 
Criticism (1985). Currently she is working on a book, Re-Visions: 
Contemporary Women Writers and the Tradition, forthcoming 
from the University of Illinois Press. 

Lorna Irvine, a Canadian citizen, is Associate Professor of En- 
glish and American Studies at George Mason University. She is 
the author of Sub/Version, a study of Canadian women writers, 



Notes on Contributors 259 

and has published and presented papers on Canadian hterature 
throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe. She is cur- 
rently working on a book-length study of modernity in Canadian 
fiction entitled ''Maternal Metaphors." 

Judith McCombs is currently working on a book-length manu- 
script, "Margaret Atwood: Metamorphoses, Evidence, and Ar- 
chetypes," and Goauthoring, with Carole L. Palmer, an Atwood 
bibliography. A Canadian Embassy Senior Fellow for 1985-86, 
and Professor on extended leave from the Center for Creative 
Studies College of Art and Design, Detroit, she has published two 
books of poetry. Sisters and Other Selves and Against Nature: Wil- 
derness Poems. Her Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood (G. K. 
Hall) appeared in 1988. 

Ann McMillan received a doctorate in English from Indiana 
University and is currently a writer and editor in Richmond, Vir- 
ginia. Her publications include a modern verse translation of 
Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, with an introduction discuss- 
ing the tradition of women destroyed by love (Rice University 
Press, 1987) and articles on medieval women. Currently she is 
writing on women's responses to erotic texts. 

Roberta Rubenstein is Professor of Literature and Director of 
the Women's Studies Program at American University in Wash- 
ington, D.C. She is the author o^ The Novelistic Vision of Doris 
Lessing: Breaking the Forms of Consciousness (1979) and Boundaries 
of the Self: Gender, Culture, Fiction (1987). The latter book, a study 
of six contemporary women writers, includes a chapter on 
Margaret Atwood; she has also published articles on Atwood, Vir- 
ginia Woolf, and Margaret Drabble. 

June Schlueter is Associate Professor of English at Lafayette 
College, Easton, Pennsylvania. She is the 2iUthor of Metafictional 
Characters in Modern Drama (Columbia University Press, 1979), 
The Plays and Novels of Peter Handke (University of Pittsburgh 
Press, 1981), 2ind Arthur Miller (Frederick Ungar, 1987). She has 
coedited reference volumes on modern American literature and 
the British novel and is coeditor of Shakespeare Bulletin. 



26o Notes on Contributors 

Kathryn VanSpanckeren is Associate Professor of English at the 
University of Tampa; she coedited/o/;» Gardner: Critical Perspec- 
tives (1982) and has edited x.\\&Mar£iaretAtwood Society Newsletter. 
President-elect of the Atwood Society, she has published poetry 
and critical essays on contemporary authors including Atwood 
and is involved in international literary programs. Currently she 
is completing a short history of American literature for 
non-Americans. 

Kathleen Vqgt recently taught a senior seminar on Margaret 
Atwood at Wheaton College (Norton, Mass.), where she is Pro- 
fessor of English and Chair of the Department. Her interests in- 
clude Irish literature (particularly Yeats), contemporary women 
writers, and writers about nature (particularly contemporary 
Cape Cod writers). An earlier version of the essay in this volume 
was presented at the special "Animal Rights" section of the MLA 
annual convention in 1980. 

Sharon R. Wilson is Professor of English and Women's Studies 
at the University of Northern Colorado. Past copresident of the 
Margaret Atwood Society, she has published on romance, film, 
and modern literature, including a number of articles on Atwood. 
Currently she is working on fairy tales in Atwood's work; her arti- 
cles on fairy tales in The Edible Woman and The Handmaid's Tale 
are forthcoming. 



Index 



Acta Victoriana, 5-6 

Adam Bede (Eliot), xxii, 12-ij 

Adams, Henry, 201 

Aeneid (Virgil), 215 

"After the Flood, We," 190 

"Against Still Life," 132 

Ainsley {The Edible Woman), 17, 18, 

lOI 

"All Bread," 177-78 

Alphabet, 6 

"America as the aging demon lover," 

142, 14J, 145-46 
Amnesty International, xx, xxvi, 234, 

237 _ 
Anansi Press, xxvii, 227-28 
Anatomy of Criticism (Frye), 6 
Animal Farm (Orwell), 106 
Animals, xxi, 163-65, 180-82; and 

death, 171-75; human connection 

with, xxvi, 168-71; and 

metamorphosis, 175-78; 

victimization of, 165-68; in 

women's literature, 179-80 
Animals in That Country, The, 132, 

146, 161 n, 170-71, 207, 210; 

animals in, 166-67, 174-75, 180 
Anna {Sutfacin£i), 1-2, 39 
Anna's Pet, xxi 
Anorexia nervosa, xxii, 15, 18 
"April, Radio, Planting, Easter," 

177, 178 
Archetypal Patterns in Women's 

Fiction (Pratt), 99 
"Arctic Syndrome: dream fox," 

170 
Arthur {Lady Oracle), 58, 60 
Assembly of Ladies, The, 50-51 
Astrov, Margot, 187, 200 



"At first I was given centuries," 124, 
132 

Athene (The Odyssey), 124, 134 

Atwood, Margaret: on ambiguous 
endings, 220-21; on Canada, 
223-24, 229-30; on Cuba, 235-38; 
as feminist, 9-10, 39; on her 
education, 215-16, 227-28, 234, 
243; influences on, 24, 215-16, 227, 
233; on language, 226-27; on 
media, 238-40; political 
involvement of, xx, xxvi-xxvii; on 
political writing, 102, 233-34, 241; 
and publishers, 220; on quest 
stories, 226; on research, 218; on 
the Writers' Union of Canada, 
228-29; on writing about women's 
experience, 230-33; on writing as 
self-expression, 243; on zoos, 163, 
181-82 

"Atwoods as Birds," 212 

"Atwood's Gorgon Touch" (Davey), 
172 

"Atwood Walking Backwards" 
(Davey), 3 

Auerbach, Nina, 100 n 

Austen, Jane, xiv, xxiii, 49-50, 56, 225 

Avison, Margaret, 6 

"Axiom," 132 

Bachelard, Gaston, 203 

Badlands (Kroetsch), 43 

"Basic Victim Positions," 2, 9 

Berger, John, 87 

Berton, Pierre, 243 

Beyond Psycholo£iy (Rank), 202 

Bible, 216, 226 

Bird imagery, 32, 39. See also Animals 



261 



262 



Index 



Blais, Marie-Claire, 9 
Bluebeard's Egg, xix, 42, 209 
"Boarding House, The" (Joyce), 37 
Bodily Harm, 85, 89-90, 94-95, 102, 
221-22; ambiguity of, 86-87, 
90-94; and Atwood's visual art, 
206, 209, 212; Canadian 
nationalism in, 87-89; female text 
in, 89, 95-99; victimization of 
women in, xxiv, 87, 95-97, 103-4 
Boleyn, Anne, 209, 210 
"Book of Ancestors," 127, 135-37 
Bosch, Hieronymus, 208 
Bostonians, The (James), 43 
Brewer, Chuck {Lady Oracle)^ 58 
Bronte, Charlotte, xiv, 53-54, 203, 

220-21 
Bronte, Emily, xiv 
Bruegel, Pieter, 208 
Buckler, Ernest, 3 
Buckley, Jerome H., 7 
Bush Garden (Frye), 149 
"Bus to Alliston, Ontario, The," 
191 

Campbell, Joseph, 184 

Canada: Americanization of, 229; 
colonial mentality of, 1-2, 147-48; 
as Crone, 144, 146; as female, xxii, 
96-97, 148, 150; humor of, 8; land 
of, 144-45; as neglected child, 148; 
as primitive society, 70; reading 
audience in, 227, 243; separatism 
in, 151-52, 155, 158-59, 223; 
shamanism in, 187-88; struggle 
literature of, 4-5; as victim, xxii, 
2-4, 9, II, 87-89, 96-97, 149-50. 
See also Canadian literature 

"Canadian-American Relations: 
Surviving the Eighties," 11, 148 

Canadian literature, xiii, 2-5, 6, 9-10, 
100 n, 148 

"Canadian Monsters," 8, 192 

Canlit. See Canadian literature 

Cappon, Paul, 3 

Carpenter, Edmund, 195 

Carpenter, Mary Wilson, 118 

Carrier, Roch, 3 

"Carrion Spring" (Stegner), 3 

Carter, Angela, 233 

Castro, Fidel, 236 

Catherine Morland (Northanger 
Abbey), 57 



"Causes of Consciousness" (Jaynes), 

15? 
Chatterjee, Gopal {The Handmaid's 

Tale), 118 
Chris {Life Before Man), 66, 67, 68, 

70, 71; and Elizabeth, 73, 74, 198; 

suicide of, 78, 198 
Chuck Brewer {Lady Oracle), 58 
Circe ("Circe/Mud Poems"), 133-34, 

137-38; as victim and victimizer, 

125, 126, 127, 128, 130-32 
Circe {The Odyssey), xxv, 125 
"Circe/Mud Poems," 122, 127, 

130-32, 194-97. See also Circe; 

Selected Poems 
Circle Game, The, xxv, 122, 139, 

142-43, 146-50, 173-74, 206; 

shamanism in, 189-90, 192 
Cixous, Helene, 64, 96, 98 
Clara {The Edible Woman), 16, loi 
Coleman, Victor, 3 
"Comic Books vs. History," 173 
Commander {The Handmaid's Tale), 

iio-ii, 116, 118 
Communities of Women (Auerbach), 

loon 
Consuelo (Sand), 225 
Countess of Rudelstadt, The (Sand), 

225-26 
Crescent Moon, Maryann {The 

Handmaid's Tale), 112, 118, 119 
Cuba, 235, 238 
"Curse of Eve — Or, What I Learned 

in School, The," 9 

Daly, Mary, 213 n 

Daniel {Bodily Harm), 86-87, 93-94, 

95, 198 
Darnford {Maria), 55-56 
Davey, Frank, 3, 83 n 
David {Surfacing), i, 38, 40 
Davidson, Arnold E., 84 n 
Davidson, Cathy, 115, 117 
Davies, Robertson, 234 
"Daybooks," 190 
"Death as Bride," 208-9 
de Beauvoir, Simone, xvi 
Deceived with Kindness (Garnett), 

43 
de Courtivron, Isabelle, 98 
Delacourt, Mrs. {Lady Oracle), 

21-22, 102 
Demeter, 36-38, 42, 43, 44, 45 



Index 



263 



Les Demoiselles d'Avi^non (Picasso), 

186 
"Descent Through the Carpet," 

189-90 
Dcwdney, Sclwin, 224 
Diamond, Stanley, 187 
"Diary Down Under," 10 
Dickens, Charles, 233 
Dickinson, Emily, xiv 
"Digging," 176 
Dinah Morris {Adam Bede), 

12-13 
"Disneyland of the Soul, A," 35 
Doctorow, E. L., 10, 234 
Donne, John, 141 n 
"Don't Expect the Bears to Dance," 

163 
Double Persephone, 46 n, 171-72, 189, 

192, 206 
"Double Voice, The," 172 
Douglas, Mary, 70, 83-84 n 
Drabble, Margaret, 233 
"Dreams of the Animals," 167-68, 

207 
Duncan (The Edible Woman), 17, 

18-20, 23 
Du Plessis, Rachel Blau, 32, 36, 44 

Each Man's Son (Wiseman), 3 
Eating, 26-27, 33 n, 109-10, 206, 207; 

and self-image, 15, 16, 18 
"Eating Fire," 139 
Edible Woman, The, 13-14, 18-20, 23, 

60, 101, 212, 217-18; eating in, xxii, 

15, 16, 18, 207; marriage plot in, 

14-18 
"Eleven Years of Alphabet," 6, 150 
Eliade, Mircea, 184, 185, 186, 187, 

194-95, 197, 202 
Eliot, George, xiv, xxii, 12-13, 233 
Eliot, T. S., 82 
Elizabeth Schoenhof {Life Before 

Man). See Schoenhof, Elizabeth 
Emily {The Mysteries ofUdolpho), 

52-53,57 
"Encounters with the Element 

Man," 146 
"End to Audience?, An," 102 
Engel, Marian, 234 
Erishkigal, 192 
"Euridice," 191, 192 
Eurycleia {The Odyssey), 134 
Eurydice, 192 



Eve {Paradise I^st), 12 
"Evening Train Station, Before 

Departure," 190 
"Eventual Proteus," 190 
Even-Zohar, Itamar, 123 
"Explorers, The," 190, 192 

"Fall and All," 161 n 
Faulkner, William, xxvii, 233 
Felicia {Lady Oracle), 59-60, 62 
Feminist criticism, xi-xii, xx-xxi, 35, 

36 
"Feminist Criticism in the 

Wilderness" (Showalter), 36, 46 n 
"Feminist 1984, A" (Davidson), 115 
Findley, Timothy, 10, 234 
"First Neighbours," 128-29 
"First Prayer," 193 
"Fishing for Eel Totems," 174 
"Fitcher's Feathered Bird" (Grimm), 

xxii, 24, 27, 32, 208-9 
"Five Poems for Grandmothers," 190 
Folklore, 24-25 
Forche, Carolyn, 203, 241 
Foster, Joan {Lady Oracle), 20-23, 

49,56,61-64, 102, 197; 

victimization of, 57-61 
Foster, John Wilson, 182 n 
"Four Auguries," 126, 134 
Frankenstein (Shelley), 210-11 
Fred {The Handmaid's Tale). See 

Commander 
Freud, Sigmund, 35, 93 
Friedan, Betty, xvi 
Friedrich, Paul, 37 
Front de liberation du Quebec 

(FLQ), 152 
Frye, Northrop, 6, 88, 91, 148, 149 

Gait, George, 164 

Garnett, Angelica, 43 

Gaskell, Elizabeth, xiv 

Gerstenberger, Donna, 182 n 

Gift, The (Hyde), 242 

Gilbert, Sandra M., 30, 54, 95, 203 

Gilead. See The Handmaid's Tale 

Ginsberg, Allen, xxv, 143 

Golden Notebook, The (Lessing), 203 

Gopal Chatterjee {The Handmaid's 

Tale), 118 
Gordimer, Nadine, 10 
Gothic novel, xxiii, awareness of 

death in, 184; chastity in, 50-52; 



264 



Index 



Gothic novel {continued) 
fantasy in, 52-54; female 
victimization in, 48-49; "mixed 
Gothic" form of, 56-57, 61; 
naturalism in, 54-56 

Grace, Sherrill E., 58, 63, 65, 81, 84 n, 
122, 151, 223 

Grant, George, 4 

Grave, F. P., 3 

Graves, Robert, xiv, 9, 185 

Gray, Paul, xix 

Great Expectations (Dickens), 221 

Great Gatsby, The (Fitzgerald), 235 

Greek mythology, 215, 216, 226. See 
also Homeric model; Odyssey, The 

Green, Lesje {Life Before Man), 67, 
69, 70, 74, 102; change in, 76-79, 
82; and Nate, 77-78, 79, 80, 81; and 
process of time, 66, 68, 71 

Gregg, Linda, 233 

Grenada, 221-22 

Grimm's Fairy Tales, 24 

Grumbach, Doris, xix 

Gubar, Susan, 54, 95, 100 n, 203 

Guedon, Marie-Fran^oise, 42, 183 

Gutenberg Galaxy, The (McLuhan), 7 

Hades, 37, 38 

Haggard, H. Rider, 217 

Hammond, Karla, 170 

Handmaid's Tale, The, xix, xxiv, 101, 
102, 103-5, iio-ii, 113-14; and 
Atwood's visual art, 208, 212; 
chastity in, 51; food in, 109-10; 
history in, 114-16, 119-21; nature 
imagery in, 105-7, in-12; odors in, 
108-9; pollution in, 107-8; sexism 
in historical notes to, xxv, 112, 116 

"Hanged Man," 211-12 

Hardy, Thomas, xx 

Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and 
Grotesque in Canadian Fiction, The 
(Northey), 184 

"Head Against White," 126, 134-35 

Hecate, 37, 38 

Heilbrun, Carolyn, 197 

Helen {The Odyssey), 124, 125, 137 

"Hesitation Outside the Door," 209 

Hetty Sorrel {Adam Bede), 12 

Hidgins, Jack, 100 n 

Hillman, James, 201-2 

Holland, Norman, 51 

"Hollow Men, The" (Eliot), 82 



Homans, Margaret, 13 

Homer, 122 

Homeric model: Circe and the Siren 
in, 127-32; female characters in, 
125-26; fidelity in, 137-38; and 
gender politics, 122-23, 140; 
Penelope in, 132-37; polysystems 
of, 123-24; space and time in, 
126-27, 139 

Howl (Ginsberg), xxv, 143 

Hutcheon, Linda, 81 

Hyde, Lewis, 241 

"Ice Women vs. Earth Mothers," 8-9 
"Idea of Canada, The," 142, 143-45, 

146 
Index on Censorship, 238 
Indian Rock Paintin£is (Dewdrey), 

224 
"Insect in Red Gown with Bouquet," 

212 
Interlunar, xix, 45, 46 n, 191-92, 206 
International Margaret Atwood 

Society, xix 
Interpretation of Dreams, The 

(Freud), 93 
Invention of the World, The 

(Hodgins), 100 n 
Irigaray, Luce, 13, 99 
Irvine, Lorna, 45, 46 n 
"Is Female to Male as Nature is to 

Culture?" (Ortner), ii2n 
75 It the Sun, Philibert? (Carrier), 3 
"Is/Not," 127, 134 

Jacobson, Roman, 13 

Jake {Bodily Harm), 86, 87, 91 

James, Henry, 43 

Jane Eyre (Bronte), 53-54, 203 

Janine {The Handmaid's Tale), 108, 

109 
Jaynes, Julian, 151, 153, 154, 155, 156, 185 
Jemima {Maria), 55 
Jewett, Sarah Orne, 179 
Joan Foster {Lady Oracle). See Foster, 

Joan 
Jocasta ( Bodily Harm), 87 
Joe {Surfacing), 29, 30, 39 
James, D. G., 6 
Jong, Erica, xx, 9 
Journals of Susanna Moodie, The, 

141 n, 145, 146, 160, 191, 206, 207; 

animals in, 166, 170, 172; loneliness 



Index 



265 



in, 128-29; shamanism in, 199-200; 

sources of, 216-17 
"Journey to the Interior," 190 
Joy (The Handmaid's Tale), 106 
Joyce, James, 37, i79 
Jung, Carl, 29, 202 
"Juniper Tree, The" (Grimm), 24, 

27 

Kermode, Frank, 89-90 

Kirby, Ernest Theodore, 185 

Klein, A. M., 144, 148, 150 

Knotiy Wade {The Handmaid's Tale), 

115-16 
Kogawa, Joy, 38, 43 
Kolodny, Aiinette, 121 n 
Kroetsch, Robert, 43 

LaBarre, Weston, 185 

"Lady and Executioner with Axe," 210 

"Lady and Sinister Figure," 209-10, 

212 
Lady Oracle, xxii, 5, 197, 207, 212, 

220; as Gothic novel, xxiii, 49-50, 

56-58, 61; mirror imagery in, 13-14, 

20-23; motherhood in, 45, 102 
"Late August," 126 
"Laugh of the Medusa, The" 

(Cixous), 96 
Laurence, Margaret, 3 
Lawrence, D. H., xx 
Layton, Irving, 3 
Lee, Dennis, 151-52, 157 
Lesje Green (Life Before Man). See 

Green, Lesje 
Lessing, Doris, 45, 69, 71, 83 n, 203 
"Letter from Persephone," 45, 191 
Levesque, Rene, 152 
Levi-Strauss, Claude, 185, 187 
Life Before Man, xxiii-xxiv, 66-67, 

102, 144, 164, 165, 198; hope in, 

81-83; as realist fiction, 65-66; 

research for, 218, 243; time in, 

67-72; transformations of 

characters in, 72-81 
Limpkin, Wilfred (The Handmaid's 

Tale), 114, 118, 121 
Lippard, Lucy, 187 
"Literary Criticism of Margaret 

Atwood, The" (Steele), 3 
Livesay, Dorothy, 3 
"Looking In A Mirror," 141 n 
Lora ( Bodily Harm), xxiv, 87, 91, 92, 



97, 197; and Rcnnie, 98, 198 
Ix)u, Aunt (Lady Oracle), 22 
Loup-garou motif, xxii-xxiii, 25-27, 

30-31, 33 
Lower, A. R. M., 148 
Luke (The Handmaid's Tale), 109 
Lydia, Aunt (The Handmaid's Tale), 

104-S 

MacAlpin, Marian (The Edible 

Woman), xxii, 15, 17-18, 60, loi; 

and Duncan, 18-20, 23; and mirror 

imagery, 14-17 
McCarthy, Mary, xix 
McCombs, Judith, 211 
MacEwen, Gwendolyn, 3, 6 
McGregor, Gaile, 100 n 
MacLcnnan, Hugh, 152 
McLuhan, Marshall, 6, 207 
MacPherson, Jay, 220 
Madwoman in the Attic, The (Gilbert 

and Gubar), 100 n 
"Making of Selected Poems, the 

Process of Surfacing, The" 

(Wagner), 122 
Mandel, Eli, 6 
"Man Holding Woman's Body," 

210-11 
Maria (Wollstonecraft), xxiii, 54, 

55-56, 60 
Marian MacAlpin (The Edible 

Woman). See MacAlpin, Marian 
Marks, Elaine, 98 
"Marrying the Hangman," 210 
"Marsh, Hawk," 178 
Martha (Life Before Man), 68, 74, 82 
Martha Quest (Lessing), 69, 83 n 
Marvell, Andrew, 141 n 
Maryann Crescent Moon (The 

Handmaid's Tale), 112, 118, 119 
Mathews, Robin, 4, 9 
"Mathews and Misrepresentation," 

4-5 
Matthews, J. P., 6 
Meaning of Aphrodite, The 

(Friedrich), 37 
Mechanical Bride, The (McLuhan), 

207 
Melville, Herman, 222, 234 
Memoirs of a Survivor (Lessing), 71 
Menelaus (The Odyssey), 137 
"Message to Winnipeg" (Reaney), 

143 



266 



Index 



Metamorphoses (Ovid), 215 
Middlemarch (Eliot), 233 
Midnight Birds: Stories of 

Contemporary (American) Black 

Women Writers, 10- 11 
"Migration: C. P. R., " 190 
Millett, Kate, 9 
Milton, John, xxii, 12 
Minnow, Dr. {Bodily Harm), 88, 91, 

197 
Mirror imagery, 19-20, 30, 200; and 

female beauty, 12-13, 20-23; and 

loss of identity, 14-18; and woman 

as consumer item, 13-14 
Moby-Dick (Melville), 222 
Moers, Ellen, 32, 203 
Moira (The Handmaid's Tale), 104, 

109 
Montoni (The Mysteries of Udolpho), si 
Moodie, Susanna, 216, 231-32 
Moore, Brian, 148 
"More and More," 180 
Morland, Catherine {Northan^er 

Abbey), 57 
Morley, Patricia, 3 
Morris, Dinah (Adam Bede), 12-13 
Mountain and the Valley, The 

(Buckler), 3 
"Mourners at Woman's Bier," 210, 211 
Mrs. Dalloway (Woolf), 203 
Munro, Alice, 234 
Murder in the Dark, 206, 207 
Muriel, Auntie {Life Before Man), 

73-74, 75, 144 
"My Poetic Principles," 143 
Mysteries of Udolpho, The (Radcliffe), 

49, 52-53 

"Nasturtium," 190-91 

Nate (Life Before Man), 66, 67, 68, 71, 

73, 74; change in, 79-81, 82; 

determinism of, 69-70, 72; and 

Lcsje, 77-78, 79, 80 
"Nationalism, Limbo, and the 

Canadian Club," 6, 7-8 
Nature imagery, loi, 105-7, in-12. 

See also Animals 
Nausicaa {The Odyssey), 137 
"Newsreel: Man and Firing Squad," 

192 
Nichol, B. P., 3 

Nick {The Handmaid's Tale), 108-9 
"A Night in the Royal Ontario 



Museum," 174-75 
"Night Poem," 191 
Northanger Abbey (Austen), xxiii, 49, 

56-58 
Northey, Margot, 184 
"Notes Towards a Poem That Can 

Never Be Written," 230 

Oates, Joyce Carol, 7, 24 
Obasan (Kogawa), 38, 43 
Odysseus {The Odyssey), 125 
Odysseus {Selected Poems), 124, 126, 

129 
The Odyssey (Homer), 122, 123-24, 

125, 137. See also Greek mythology; 

Homeric model; Selected Poems 
Offred {The Handmaid's Tale), xxv, 

103, 104, 105, 106, 107-10; narrative 

of, 113, 114; uncertain fate of, m, 116 
"On Being a 'Woman Writer,'" 9, 220 
One Hundred Tears of Solitude 

(Garcia Marquez), 222 
"One Woman Ixads to Another" 

(Irvine), 46 n 
"One Writer's Use of Grimm," 33 n 
Origins of Consciousness in the 

Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind 

(Jaynes), 151 
"Orpheus," 191 
Ortner, Sherry, 112 n 
Orwell, George, 106 
Ovid, 215 
Oxford Book of Canadian Short 

Stories, The, xvi 

Pachter, Charles, 146-47 
Paradise Lost (Milton), xxii, 12 
Paris {The Odyssey), 137 
Paul {Bodily Harm), 87, 88, 91, 94, 

197, 198 
Paul (Lady Oracle), 58, 60 
Penelope {The Odyssey), 124, 125, 126, 

I32-B3 
Penelope {Selected Poems), 125, 127, 

133-35, 138; transformation of, 

135-37 
Percival, Mr. {Surfacing), 25, 33 n 
Persephone, 36-38, 42, 43, 44, 45, 192 
"Persephone Departing," 189 
Peter Wollander {The Edible 

Woman), 14-19 
Pieixoto, Professor {The Handmaid's 

Tale), 112, 116, 117, 118, 119, 120 



Index 



267 



Picrcy, Marge, xx, 9 

Plath, Sylvia, xvi, xx, 20J 

"Poetics of Duplicity, The," (Grace), 

122 
"Polysystem Theory" (Even-2k)har), 

12? 
Portrait of the Artist as a Tounff Man, 

A (Joyce), 179-80 
"Portrait of the Poet as Landscape" 

(Klein), 144 
"Postcard," 90-91 
Power Politics, 146, 156, 168-69, 180, 

230; and Atwood's visual art, 205, 

206, 207, 209, 211, 212 
Pratt, Annis, 40, 41-42, 99, 179-80, 

197 
Prescott, Peter S., 116 
Pride and Prejudice (Austen), 225 
Procedures for Underground, 173, 174, 

188-89, >92, 207 
"Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer," 

170-71 
Proper Marria£ie, A (Lessing), 83 n 
"Psychological Journey: Mothers and 

Daughters in English-Canadian 

Fiction, A" (Irvine), 46 n 
"Puppet of the Wolf, The," 178 
Purdy, AJ, 6 

Quest, Martha {Martha Quest), 69, 
83n 

RadclifFe, Ann, 49, 51, 52-53 
Radway, Janice, 48, 50 
Rasmussen, Knud, 187, 190, 193 
Reaney, James, 6, 142, 143, i44, i45, 

148, 150 
Redmond (Lady Oracle), 59-60 
"Red Shirt," 45 
Rennie Wilford (Bodily Harm). See 

Wilford, Rennie 
Ri-visionin^ Psychology (Hillman), 

207 
"Rhetorics of Sexuality, The" 

(Homans), 13 
Rhys, Jean, 54 
Rich, Adrienne, 9, 203 
Richler, Mordecai, 234 
Rigney, Barbara Hill, 197 
Rite of Spring, The (Stravinsky), 

186 
"Robber Bridegroom, The," 209 
Rochester, Edward Fairfax (Jane 



Eyre), 53-54 
Rosenberg, Jerome H., 151 
Ross, W. W. E., 3 
Rossetti, Christina, xii 
Rothenbcrg, Jerome, 187 
Roy, Gabrielle, 3 
Royal Porcupine {Lady Oracle), 58, 

60 
"Royal Visit, The," (Reaney), 144 
Rubinstein, Roberta, 71 
Running Dog, Johnny {The 

Handmaid's Tale), 112 

Sand, George, 225-26 
Scarborough, Margaret, 32 
Schocnhof, Elizabeth {Life Before 

Man), xxiii, 66, 67, 68, 70, 71-72, 

102; change in, 75-76, 82; 

determinism of, 69, 72; and Lesje, 

78-79; as shaman, 198 
Second Words, xxi-xxii, 5-11, 230 
"Secrets and Narrative Sequence" 

(Kermode), 90 
Selected Poems, xxv, 15, 43, 122; as 

discourse on fidelity, 137-38; 

physical location of characters in, 

126-27; polysystems of, 123-24; 

space and time in, 127, 138-39; 

transformation in, 132. See also 

Homeric model; individual poems 
Selected Poems II, 151 
"Settlers, The," 132, 190, 192 
Sexton, Anne, xvi, 203 
Shakespeare, William, xvi, 226-27 
Shamanism, xxi, xxvi, 186-88, 

198-200; and death, 192, 198; and 

descent theme, 188-92, 194-97; 

and feminism, 202-3; meaning of, 

183-86, 201-3 
Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of 

Ecstasy (Eliade), 187, 194-95 
She (Haggard), 217-18 
"She Considers Evading Him," 

132 
Shelley, Mary, xxiii, 210 
Sherman, Leona, 51 
Showalter, Elaine, 36, 46 n 
Siren {The Odyssey), 125 
Siren {Selected Poems), 125-26, 127, 

128, 129-30, 137 
"Siren Song," 122, 127, 128, 176 
Snitow, Ann, 52 
"Snow" (Grove), 3 



268 



Index 



"Some Objects of Wood and 
Stone," 173-74 

"Songs of the Hen's Head," 175 

"Songs of the Transformed," 122, 
169, 175-76, 193-94 

Sorrel, Hetty {Adam Bede), 12 

Spacks, Patricia Meyer, 53, 57 

"Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein," 
206, 210, 211 

"Spring in the Igloo," 190 

Standard Dictionary of Folklore, 25 

Steele, James, 3, 4 

Stegner, Wallace, 3 

Stone An^el, The (Laurence), 3 

Stowe, Harriet Beecher, xiv 

Stuart, Mary, 209, 210 

Surfacing, xxvi, 7, 11, 30, 41-42, 
218-20, 224; animals in, 164, 181; 
Atwood on characters of, 219-20; 
Canada in, 1-2, 88, 159; as 
double-voiced discourse, 36, 38-39, 
42-44; ending of, 222; female 
power in, 39-41; female 
victimization in, 60; and "Pitcher's 
Feathered Bird," 27-30; Indian 
myths in, 223-25; loss and silence 
themes of, 35-36, 38; as loup-garou 
story, xxii-xxiii, 25-27, 30-31; 
mother figure in, 44-45; 
procreation in, 101-2; as quest 
novel, 43-44; shamanism in, 189, 
195, 197; visions in, 31-33, 4i 

"Survival, Affirmation, and Joy" 
(Morley), 3 

Survival: A Thematic Guide to 
Canadian Literature, xxi, 10, 88, 
144, 148, 158; animals in, 164, 
165-66; Canada as victim in, xxii, 2, 
9, 11; Canadian reaction to, 3-5, 
242; colonial mentality in, 2, 147 

Susannah Moodie, 216, 231 

Symposium of the Whole 
(Rothenberg), 187 

Technicians of the Sacred 

(Rothenberg), 187 
"Termite Queen," 207, 212 
"There Is Only One of Everything," 

127, 135, 165 
"They are hostile nations," 169 
"Third Eye, The" (MacPherson), 220 
"This Is a Photograph of Me," 138-39 
This Magazine, 151, 152, 157 



This Sex (Irigaray), 13 

Thomas, Audrey, 9, 86 

Thomas, Clara, 62 

Thompson, John, 10 

"Thoughts from Underground," 129 

Tilney, General (Northan^ier Abbey), 57 

Todorov, Tzvetan, 43 

"To His Coy Mistress," 141 n 

"Towards a Sociology of English 

Canadian Literature" (Cappon), 3 
Tradition in Exile: A Comparative 

Study of Social Influences on the 

Development of Australian and 

Canadian Poetry in the Nineteenth 

Century (Matthews), 6 
"Travels Back," 8 
"Tricks with Mirrors," 15, 20, 200 
Tristes Tropiques (Levi-Strauss), 187 
Trudeau, Pierre Eliot, 152, 157, 159 
True Stones, 89, 91, 96, 206, 213, 230 
"Two-Headed Poems," 142, 143, 

151-60; conclusion of, 159-60; 

disintegration in, 152-53, 154; 

Jaynesian stages of consciousness 

in, 154-55; structure of, 153; 

sun-spelling in, 156-57; two-headed 

monster in, 151-52; warnings in, 

158-59 
Two-Headed Poems, xxv, 42, 45, 46 n, 

177-79, 190-91; and Atwood's 

visual art, 206, 207, 210 
"Two Miles Away," 190 
Tzara, Tristan, 186 

"Under Glass," 218 

"Unearthing Suite," 42 

United States: Atwood's views on, 
XX, 238-39, 240-41; cultural 
dominance of, 7, 229-30; as demon 
lover, 145-46, 160; disintegration 
of, 152, 154, 160; as dystopia, 113, 
118; reading audience in, 228, 242; 
thinking in, 6; as victimizer, xxii, 
1-2, 60, 146. See also Canada 

Updike, John, xix 

Up in the Tree, xxi 

"Upper Canadian" (Reaney), 144 



Valgardson, W. D., 10 
"Variations on the Word 'Love,'" 
Villette (Bronte), 220 
Violent Duality (Grace), 46 n 
Virgil, 215 



213 



Index 



269 



Visual art, 205-13, 217; annotations 
to watercolors, 208-12; and 
Atwood's literary art, 205-8, 213 

von Franz, Marie, 203 

Wacousta Syndrome, The (McGregor), 

lOon 
Wade, Knotly {Jlie Handmaid's 

Tale), 115-16 
Wagner, Linda W., 122 
Walker, Alice, xx 
Walpolc, Horace, xxiii, 51 
Waste Land, The (Eliot), 82 
Ways of Seeing (Berger), 87 
Weldon, Fay, 233 
"The Wereman," 141 n 
Werewolf. See Loup-garou 
"What's So Funny? Notes on 

Canadian Humour," 8 
"When you look at nothing," 124, 

133-34 
Where Nests the Water Hen (Roy), 

3 
White Goddess, The, xv, 8-9, 185 
"White Heron, A" (Jewett), 

179-80 
Whitman, Walt, 234 
Wide Sargasso Sea (Rhys), 54-55 
Wilford, Rennie (Bodily Harm), xxiv, 

85, 86, 90, 97, 197-98; as blank 

page, 95; and fertility, 102; 

incarceration of, 91-92; 

mastectomy of, 92-93; memories 



of, 86-87; naivete of, 88; rebirth of, 

97-98, 99; as victim of men, 60, 87; 

wandering thoughts of, 93-94; as 

writer, 89 
William (Life Before Man), 70, 76, 77, 

78 
Wilson, F. O., 121 n 
"Winnipeg" (Reaney), 148 
Wiseman, Adele, 3 
"Wish: Metamorphosis to Heraldic 

Emblem," 132 
Wollander, Peter (The Edible 

Woman), 14-19 
Wollstonecraft, Mary, xxiii, 54, 55-56, 

60 
"Women and Nature in Modern 

Fiction" (Pratt), 179-80 
Wood, Gayle, 165 
Woolf, Virginia, 67, 203 
Writing Beyond the Ending (Du 

Plessis), 36 
Writers' Union of Canada, xx, xxvii, 

227-29 

Yeats, W. B., 141 n 

Tellow Wallpaper, The (Gilman), 54 

Tou Are Happy, 122, 139, 169, 175-77, 

192; shamanism in, 193-97, 199, 

200 

2Lcus, 37, 38 
Zwicky, Fay, 10