One Woman Leads to Another

The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism, edited and with an Introduction by Arnold E. Davidson and Cathy N. Davidson. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1981. 304 pp. $18.95.

I have borrowed my title from Lorna Irvine who uses it as the title for her essay on Atwood's 1976 collection of poems, Two-Headed Poems, in the book under review, The Art of Margaret Atwood. She in turn borrowed it from the poet herself who wrote it originally as a line in a poem celebrating the heuristic clannishness of the women in the poet's family: "sons branch out" but daughters and sisters lead to each other, to the poet, and to an understanding of the hidden female psyche. To make a minor point first about another heuristic clannishness: in The Art of Margaret Atwood one woman leads to another in the sense that most of the essayists here (eleven out of fifteen in fact) are women. (And of the four men, one, Alan Horne, merely provides a checklist of writings by and about Atwood; another, Arnold E. Davidson writes only in collaboration with Cathy N.) In a perhaps more significant sense, the notion that one woman leads to another suggests a rewarding approach to Margaret Atwood's work that this collection of essays tends merely to dangle in front of us as a tantalizingly ambitious project for someone else to tackle. The idea crops up in Lee Briscoe Thompson's bridging essay between the six on Atwood's poetry and the seven on her prose. In "Minuets and Madness: Margaret Atwood's Dancing Girls," Thompson maintains that Atwood "underrates the organic quality of her writing" and explores the collection of short stories Dancing Girls (1977) in terms of their stylistic and thematic connections with the poems and the novels. And in the collection's final essay, the only one on Atwood's criticism, "Bashful But Bold: Notes on Margaret Atwood as Critic," George Woodcock argues that Atwood's criticism is not really separable from her fiction and poetry. He relates Atwood's earlier criticism to Survival and, then, taking his cue from Eli Mandel's remark that Survival is a gloss on Surfacing, even more interestingly relates Survival to Atwood's poetry and fiction generally. One Margaret Atwood leads to another.

     As we can perhaps see, already, The Art of Margaret Atwood is a carefully structured book. George Woodcock's essay provides a neat conclusion — Alan Horne's checklist is a helpful appendix — the essays on the poetry and prose are judiciously placed. At the beginning of the book, the Davidsons' "Introduction" emphasises the "multiplicity of approaches" that follow and draws our attention to the inroads Atwood has made into the American market, symbolized by the presence in the collection of essays by American poet-critics. Sandra Djwa's essay which comes next —   "The Where of Here: Margaret Atwood and a Canadian Tradition" —   usefully outlines the shaping forces on Atwood's writing, "The new feminism, a myth-centred poetry, Frye's criticism and the growing nationalism of the sixties" and then, just as usefully, focusses on what Atwood offers that is unique in British and American poetry, her "sense of the human as animal in an evolutionary . . . context." Some of the other essays take up and expand upon Djwa's introductory remarks, the more ambitious ones concerned to place Margaret Atwood in a larger tradition. George Woodcock and Lee Briscoe Thompson do this. So too does Annis Pratt, a self-confessed "feminist archetypalist," who, in "Surfacing and the Rebirth Journey" places Surfacing provocatively among other works of literature by women concerned with the "woman hero's quest," among them To the Lighthouse, Wuthering Heights, Little Women (!), Anais Nin's Seduction of the Minotaur, Doris Lessing's Four-Gated City.

     All well and good. And yet it seems to me that the collection essentially and unfortunately belies its title, doing so in a painfully predictable way. Hardly any essay here is really about the art of Margaret Atwood; none of them is really an act of criticism. What we have instead —  with the partial exceptions of one or two of the essays already cited and with the more than partial exception of one other — is a series of papers obsessed with interpretation, the whatness of Margaret Atwood not the howness, as though she were already an established classic whose technique and success can both somehow be taken for granted. The essays on the fiction are particularly content oriented, singlemindedly exegetical, and even those on the poetry tend to judgements simply and casually honorific, sweepingly so sometimes as we may see in one tossed out by the American poet, Judith McCombs: "Atwood's best work . . . is as compellingly original as Coleridge's Xanadu." Well, there we are. The closest this collection comes to discussing Atwood's art in a respectably analytic manner occurs in Sherrill E. Grace's essay, "Margaret Atwood and the Poetics of Duplicity," where there is at least some attempt to show us how in The Journals of Susanna Moodie Atwood succeeds in so powerfully conveying her "vision of duplicity" in a language geared to the subject's demands: "Her poems are characterized by a cool, literal language that functions syntagmatically. This type of language, relying on contiguity and synecdoche, is usually found in prose, and, therefore, seems more ordinary, unobtrusive and prosaic."

     Interestingly enough, it is around Atwood's "vision of duplicity" in the largest sense that interpretation in most of the essays inevitably clusters. On the one hand, a fairly straightforward feminist reading in which Atwood's men and women are seen as statically and predictably representative. On the other hand, a reading that plumps for a disturbingly complicated, ubiquitous ambivalence. Lorna Irvine's "One Woman Leads to Another" is an extreme instance of the half dozen or so essays that cling to the notion of a consistently held, rather simple-minded signification. In Two-Headed Poems, Irvine believes, Atwood has for the first time "created a dominant female world" as the result of the birth of the poet's first child which "has dramatically changed the focus of Atwood's writing." (We would expect to find — and do not, at least not in the way that Irvine means — such a change in Life Before Man. Two-Headed Poems was published in 1978; Life Before Man in 1979.) In "The Dark Voyage: The Ed ible Woman as Romance," Catherine McLay sees Marian's progress in the book more or less in terms of the heroine of romance who finally emerges from her travails in the underworld of her mind to rejoin society  — stronger, more capable, saner, no longer self-destructive. Marian eats the cake that symbolizes herself as an act somehow symbolic of her new awareness: "A cake is a cake, an edible; a woman's a woman, not edible. The dark voyage, downwards and inwards, is over. She has returned to life and to consuming." In similar fashion, Clara Thomas in "Lady Oracle: The Narrative of a Fool-Heroine" claims that finally "Like Susanna Moodie . . . Margaret Atwood shows Joan Foster moving stage by stage through a slow, hilarious, painful, and ultimately reassuring process towards a personhood which will incorporate its necessary component of good sense." But the largest claims for this romance version of the heroine's heroic progress and redemption is made by Annis Pratt in her otherwise compelling essay. The retreat of the unnamed heroine of Surfacing, she argues, "constitutes a reculant pour mieux sauter." The end of the book celebrates its title: "What makes Surfacing so unique in this genre is that the hero seems wholly transformed and wholly determined to 'surface' in her full power back into the world of culture."

     What price duplicity. These confident assertions hardly square with the nagging concern of some of the other essays in this collection to pry into the doubleness of things in Margaret Atwood's work, their disturbing two-headedness. They hardly square, for example, with Judith McCombs' equally confident assertions in "Atwood's Haunted Sequences: The Circle Game, The Journals of Susanna Moodie and Power Politics" that in The Circle Game the female I "is simultaneously the hero and victim of the Gothic horrors that unreel inside her skull" or that in Power Politics the man's "role of monstrous Gothic villain alternates with his role of pathetic Gothic monster." Is it perhaps simply the case that the poetry is inherently more duplicitous (as poetry tends to be) than the prose fiction? The Davidsons don't think so, according to their remarks in their essay "Prospects and Retrospect in Life Before Man." But it is Robert Lecker's paper, "Janus through the Looking Glass: Atwood's First Three Novels," which really puts the cat among the romantic pigeons. With an unbashful boldness, Lecker transfers much of the juicy duplicitous play with ambiguity that characterizes Atwood's poetry to readings of the first three novels, endings and all. As far as he is concerned, the dark voyage downwards and inwards in Margaret Atwood is never really over. For him the fact that Marian in The Edible Woman "eats a cake which symbolizes herself makes her into a mixture of consumer and consumed"; in Lady Oracle Joan remains the "confused product of her own fictions" failing to ''find identity, nor does she surface to survive." In all three novels, then, Lecker argues, Margaret Atwood offers us an essentially tragic vision of life in which their romance structure can only be seen as parodic in a culture such as ours: the "mythical pattern of separation, initiation, and return must itself be seen as a sham in a culture where rituals have lost their potency." Consequently:

in Atwood's novels, the heroine remains in the realm of duplicity, and although she may believe that she has moved out of the underworld's mirror, her belief is ultimately shown to be the greatest sign of self-delusion.

A re-reading of the ends of these novels convinces me that Lecker has got them right. His challenging interpretation of the prose fiction underlines for me the need for a criticism that is fully aware of the many ways one woman leads to another across and within the boundaries of Margaret Atwood's work.

Michael Taylor