Margaret Atwood’s breakthrough novel and protofeminist treatise considers gender roles and societal expectations in the late 1960s through the metaphors of the hunt, consumption, and cannibalism.
I talked to Idris about this book a little bit, and he compared its subject matter to Jane Austen’s discussion of marriage as the realm within which women were ambitious in the early 19th century: it was a matter of survival and was approached almost as career decisions are now. In fact, connecting those dots – Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett to Ibsen’s Nora Helmer to Atwood’s Marian to me – can induce vertigo! Life has changed so much for Western women in just two centuries. And – as a cause, effect, and effect of the same cause – for men, too.
I struggled with this novel. Unsurprisingly, the writing itself was lovely in its rhythmic oscillation from poetic description and metaphor to concrete colloquial prose. But when the protagonist, Marian, loses it a little bit, her actions aren’t nearly as inexplicable as the reactions of others to her. In fact, almost everyone but Marian comes across as symbolic rather than real. This isn’t a complaint, exactly – after all, most of us view the minor characters in our lives as largely representational rather than authentic. I also found myself wondering if even compensating with the requisite inflation that comes with metaphor, there might be some hyperbole going on. But this is common for me: I have to confess that I really can’t fathom what these women went through, both inside and outside their heads. And this journey into one such woman’s mind was disorienting and somewhat unsatisfying for me. I wasn’t entirely happy with some of her decisions, and I didn’t know how I felt about how it all ended. That sort of thing.
This is only the second Atwood I’ve ever read – I finally read “Alias Grace” last year, and liked it quite a bit. I feel that she’s telling important stories, stories that haven’t been told before and are therefore mysterious – you really have no clue where it’s all heading. It’s not always the most enjoyable experience, but it’s unfailingly interesting and thought-provoking. And a little humbling. After all, being reminded that there are so many stories unlike my own really puts things into perspective.
(Cross-posted at Diet of Bookworms.)