Gender Relations in Margaret Atwood Stories This paper discusses one of many contradictions in the Western cultural construct of femininity vs masculinity as depicted by Margaret Atwood in her stories. In the English literary tradition, women are often criticized and punished 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 values and rewards in the marriage market. Few, if any, successful eighteenth- and nineteenth-century heroines lack beauty. But that beauty must be validated in the eyes of the masculine representative. The power of beauty is then becomes secondary. The woman who looks in the mirror and finds herself beautiful is dangerous, because she has taken the masculine power of approval. She must then be corrected or punished. In Margaret Atwood' 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 scary emphasis that society places on the female image as a consumer item. Atwood shows that the mirror 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 pulling women into the religion of beauty and promising them the happy ending of marriage if only they learn to market themselves properly. Alternatively, to use a different terminology, let me cite an essay by Margaret Homans that explores "The Rhetorics of Sexuality" in lyric poetry by women. Homans connects the rhetoric of the nineteenth-century "lyric of romantic desire" with the sexual politics of the culture it reflects, arguing that "the cultural construction of gender" shapes both the forms and rhetoric of all literature (Homans 569). Working from Luce Irigaray's analysis of "the interdependence of language and sexuality," Homans 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 sexuality whose story is constructed as a story of looking. A culture that privileges the phallus...also privileges sight...
" (Homans 572; Irigaray 78). Both The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle by Atwood 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 protagonist's potential for wholeness and escape from the "dominant 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 changes the marriage plot of nineteenth century fiction. Marian MacAlpin, the protagonist, begins as a traditional heroine. She is young, unmarried, working for a marketing 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 service to the company.
Marian is saved from that unwelcome destiny when her boyfriend, Peter Wollander, 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" (Atwood 62). Peter and Marian date casually, "taking each other at [their] face values" (Atwood 62). In a wonderfully comic sequence, Marian becomes 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" (Atwood 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 beginning of Marian's entrapment in the mirror of masculine approval and marriage. Both of these novels end obscurely because their female protagonists have not yet become armed with conscious, rhetorical analyses of the mirror's divisive power over them.
Each has resisted set-up in the nineteenth-century plot of romantic desire. However 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.