Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, (1939- ) has never been one to shy away from the big issues. Possibly her most famous, dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985, McClelland and Stewart), gives a terrifying story of a religious totalitarian society which has overthrown the government of the United States, taking all rights away from women, and forcing a hierarchical class whereby some women become ‘handmaidens’, forced to reproduce for the ruling class.
So just an unbelievable plot that could never really happen then…
Fast forward to 2017, and recent interviews with Atwood have shown that she fears her dystopian prophecies could not be as far from the mark as we all assume. In fact, what many people may not realise is that Atwood based the events of her dystopian novel on real events she found when researching puritan values in 17th Century America. Further, it is interesting to note that sales of The Handmaid’s Tale have shot up since the inauguration of the new President.
More worryingly, she has recently warned that history can often repeat itself, pointing out that current legislation governing women’s abortion rights, for example, echo The Handmaids Tale, as well as the values upheld in early America.
Atwood told the Guardian recently “We think as progress being a straight line forever upwards. But it has never been so, you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then – bang – you’re Hitler’s Germany. That can happen very suddenly”, (2017, Guardian Online).
A stark warning, when you consider that, since the recent elections in the US, serious concerns have been expressed about the threat to women’s rights to reproductive care through President Trump’s pledge to cut funding of Planned Parenthood, a major provider of access to contraception and abortion advice for women in the US. It has been cited that he plans to end the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and that insurance companies will no longer be required to cover birth control.
Moreover, it has been reported that threats and violence toward abortion clinics in the US have nearly doubled. An anti-abortion legislator in Oklahoma recently sparked protests when he claimed “Pregnant women’s bodies aren’t their own”, going onto suggest that “irresponsible women should obtain their partner’s permission before having an abortion”. (Ramsden, T, 2017, Marie Claire Online).
With all this information circulating, and Atwood’s work being at the forefront of the ongoing debates, I wanted to check out some of her short fiction, to see whether evidence of her feminist credentials feed into her more recent work as strongly as they did with her earlier novel.
It feels that throughout these stories,
Atwood is showing the intolerance
of society toward those deemed ‘different’.
I have to confess: I hadn’t read any of Atwood’s short fiction previously, and I started with Stone Mattress (2014, O.W.Toad, Ltd). What first struck me was the quality of Atwood’s prose. She has a way of spinning a story which gives a clear view of the characters being described, and places the reader right at the centre of their world, even when that world is far from the one we inhabit.
Known for her speculative fiction, ‘Lusus Naturae’ is a dark tale of a young woman born with a genetic abnormality, and whose family mistake her for a vampire, faking her death and burial via a corrupt priest, and keeping her in one room of the house. Eventually a grown woman and alone in the house, she begins to venture outside, coming across a couple of lovers, and finding herself unable to resist jumping on top of the man, thinking she’s kissing him, but instead biting him like an animal.
The bloody result of this encounter is that the townsfolk, including her own family members, approach the house with fire torches, in order to kill the beast she has become. In a touching line, the woman tries to tell them “I am a human being”, (p116), and it feels that throughout these stories, Atwood is showing the intolerance of society toward those deemed ‘different’.
The title story, Stone Mattress, however, is the one which stood out for me as being the most connected to the legacy of protest against the treatment of women’s rights of Atwood’s earlier work.
In this story, Verna, an older woman who doesn’t state her age, has taken a vacation, a trip to the arctic on board a ship. The opening line sets the dark intentions of the story: ‘At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone’, (p201). Verna then gives us basic details of her former husbands, whom, as the story develops, we come to realise all died fairly soon after marrying Verna, though she doesn’t see herself directly as a murderer, simply that she encouraged them on their way, meeting them through her rehabilitation work, and allowing them to indulge in activities which should have been off-limits.
But it is easy to like Verna. She is a complex character, and you get the feeling from the outset that there is a reason she appears so cool and callous in her search for her next rich husband.
Before the ship disembarks, she attends a buffet and drinks evening with other members of the trip. Circulating the room, sussing out which unattended male might be worth approaching, she starts a conversation with ‘one of the Bobs’, them each displaying name badges. He comments on her unusual name, which she informs him is Latin for spring, and he delivers his full name to her, which causes her to flush. She realises, with intense shock, that he is the young man who took her to the winter formal in high school. Three years his younger, studious and innocent, she relates that night she has buried deep when Bob Goreham forced her with alcohol and raped her in his car. This, we discover, led to her reputation being ‘ruined’ in the small town, the townsfolk and high school students laughing and gossiping about her, her mother disowning her and completely blaming her when she quickly discovered she was pregnant. She was packed off to a church-run Home for Unwed Mothers on the outskirts of Toronto, where she tells us ‘they were treated to bouts of prayer and self-righteous hectoring…what had happened to them was justly deserved, the speeches went, because of their depraved behaviour,’ (p207).
Could this be Atwood’s way of confirming her earlier worries regarding the effect of zealous Christian values opposing the rights of women’s behaviour? I think so. It harks back to an earlier age, when practices like this were all too commonplace, and could be a strong message from Atwood that this is not a place we want to rediscover.
“Though the story sounds dark, Atwood’s prose,
as with all the stories in the collection,
retain an element of playfulness and humour.”
Verna relays the story of her time at the home, the humiliating experience for the young girls, and the child being taken from her quickly after a long and difficult birth, whereupon she heard a nurse comment ‘It was all for the best…because those sorts of girls made unfit mothers anyway’, (p207).
The underlying story here is that Bob was never affected by any of this. Celebrated as a hero by his friends, openly spreading gossip of his entertainment via Verna that night after the formal, whereas she lost everything. ‘Cheap. Cheap and disposable. Use and toss. That was what Bob had thought about her, from the very first’, (p206). She tells us that there had been no true words for the act of rape back then; that was simply something which happened ‘when some maniac jumped on you out of a bush’, (p211).
Believing herself ruined anyway, she decides never to return home to her mother and a town full of people she despises, instead stumbling upon an older married man, with whom ‘she traded noontime sex…for the price of her education. A fair exchange, to her mind’, (p208). Her choice of career in physiotherapy had followed, allowing her to meet rich, elderly men with life-threatening conditions, and thus building her life around her looks and sex appeal.
Her dismay at the fact that Bob doesn’t even recognise her, despite her having such an unusual name, intensifies her sense of the injustices she felt at his hands. She quickly realises it is Bob who turned her into a murderer, no one else, and she considers how to go about killing him with an air of theoretical calm. She makes a deal with herself that ‘if I tell him who I am and he recognises me and then apologises, I still won’t kill him’, (p217), and sets about her plan. What follows is a precise murder plotted and executed worthy of any of the best crime fiction. Though the story sounds dark, Atwood’s prose, as with all the stories in the collection, retain an element of playfulness and humour. Buying gloves at the gift shop, she informs us ‘she’s read a lot of crime novels’, (p216).
By the time Verna comes to executing the deed, the reader is totally on her side, feeling this Bob character deserves all he gets. Even when Verna declares at the last minute that he’s aged, he’s frailer, and wonders if she should let ‘bygones be bygones, boys will be boys’, (p218).
At the end of the story, a tired and empty Verna feels at peace, safe. She thinks back to her third husband and his annoying quotations, thinking of how ‘Those Victorians always coupled sex with death’, (p223), an interesting note to end the story on.
This story, more than any other in the collection, feels timely and wise to me. Her reflection on the ways in which women’s morality in comparison to men’s was dealt with – punished in the one, and celebrated in the other – feels worryingly close to the discussions going on across the Atlantic right now. About women’s rights to choose what happens to their body, about their access to reproductive care, and about some of the vicious language used recently against women that has no place in a modern, progressive society.
Kate Jones is a freelance writer based in the North of England and has published features, reviews and essays in various places online including Thresholds, The State of the Arts, The Real Story and Skirt Collective. She has a passion for the short form, and has published many of her own flash fictions in places such as Spelk, Firefly, SickLit and Café Aphra, as well as winning the quarterly Flash500competition and three times winner of AdHoc Fiction. Her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
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