You are on page 1of 4

The Fiction of Margaret Atwood:

A Critique of Popular Culture

Mary Hurley Moran
Clemson University
The fictional corpus of contemporary Canadian writer Margaret Atwood is characterizedby a diverserange of subjectsand styles.There is
the whimsically comic Edible Woman (1969), the surrealistic Surfacing
(1972), the gothic romance parody Lady Oracle (1976), the bleakly realistic
Life Before Man (1979), and the Caribbean revolution tale Bodily Harm
(1982),'Critics, attempting to find some common ingredients in these works,
talk about Atwood's inheritance of Canadian survival literature;' her feminist
polemics; her interest in the gothic, the supernatural, and the primitive;
and her flair for humor and parody. All of these are unquestionably features
of her fiction, but there is an additional one that critics have thus far
overlooked: her fascination with, and indictment of, the kind of popular
culture that is over-running the United States and Canada. Atwood's novels
explore the way the various forms of popular culture--the media, advertising, journalism, movies, art, and so forth--perniciously invade and influence
people's perceptions and attitudes, making them obsessed with images,
preventing them from experiencing life authentically, and deadening their
moral sensibility.
In her first novel she expresses her criticism through the insights of
the protagonist, Marian MacAlpin. As a market researcher who conducts
surveys to test the efficacy of various advertisements, Marian is aware of
the way ads are designed to make people strive to associate themselves with
certain images of status. She notes, for example, that the phrases and illustrations of a beer commercial she is testing are intended to make "the
average beer-drinker, the slope-shouldered pot-bellied kind,...feel a mystical
identity with the plaid-jacketed sportsman shown in the pictures with his
foot on a deer or scooping a trout into his net" (The Edible Woman, p.
25). So aware is she of the influence of the media that she even suspects
her boyfriend's attempts at "spontaneous" love-making (in the bathtub,
in a bucolic setting, etc.) to have been triggered by images in girlie or outdoorsy male magazines.

In her second novel, Surfacing, Atwood moves into a more serious
vein of criticism, presenting us with two characters, Anna and David, who
have been so influenced by the media that they have lost all touch with their
true selves and strike us as caricatures. Anna is a victim of the images of
women promoted by magazine ads and artides. Married to David for ten
years, she still cannot let him see her true self, not even her true physical
self. Even when supposedly "roughing it" on a cc.mpingtrip, she gets up
before him in the morning to secretly adorn herself with make-up, in an
attempt to create the image of attractive femaleness propagated by the
media. Atwood points out the complexity and de-humanization of such
image-consciousness in her description of Anna:
Rump on a packsack, harem cushion, pink on the cheeks and
black discreetly around the eyes, as red as blood as black as
ebony, a seamed and folded imitation of a woman who is also
an imitation, the original nowhere.. .(Surfacing, p. 194)
David is just as removed from his true self as Anna is from hers.
Although he constantly makes fun of televisionads and of the empty-headed
people whose culture is limitedto the "tube," he too is a victimof the media.
He has been swayed and infected by the fashionable liberal attitudes of the
day, to the point where he no longer has an authentic identity. The narratorprotagonist observes of him:
he was an impostor, a pastiche, layers of political handbills,
pages from magazines, affiches, verbs and nouns glued on to
him and shredding away, the original su:-face littered with
fragments and tatters. In a black suit knocking on doors, young
once, even that had been a costume, a uniform; now his hair
was falling off and he didn't know what language to use, he'd
forgotten his own, he had to copy. Secondhand American was
spreading over him in patches, like mange or lichen. He was infested, garbled, and I couldn't help him: it would take such time
to heal, unearth him, scrape down to where he was true. (Surfacing, pp. 178-79)
The trendy kind of character Atwood created in David appears again
in later novels: in Lady Oracle the protagonist's husband, Arthur, and his
friends frequently modify their ideologies and attitudes to accord with the
latest political fashion, and in Life Before Man Nate, one of the protagonists, gives up his career as a liberal lawyer and turns to crafting toys
when activism goes out of style and artisanship becomes fashionable.
In some of the novels we are given glimpses of how popular images
are pushed on the public. For example, when Joan Foster, the gothic poet

and novelist who is protagonist of Lady Oracle, publishes a volume of

mediocre poetry, the press "packages" the book and the author in such
a way that Joan becomes an overnight celebrity. Her mournful, macabre
poetry is compared with that of Leonard Cohen, Kahlil Gibran, and Rod
McKuen, and exotic photographs of Joan wearing long, flowing red hair
and a medieval-style gown are flashed across the pages of tabloids. One
can imagine scores of young women suddenly dying their hair red and
mimicking this Pre-Raphaelite image, in the same kind of phenomenon we
have seen in Britain with the Princess Di look and in the States with the
Brooke Shields look.
In Atwood's most recent novel, Bodily Harm, three of the main
characters are manipulators of popular culture. Jake, the protagonist
Rennie's boyfriend, is a "designer of labels, not just labels but the total
package: the label, the container, the visuals for the advertising. He was
a packager. He decided how things would look and what contexts they would
be placed in, which meant what people would feel about them" (Bodily
Harm pp.95-96). He packages his own life, too, from his personal environment (he frequently re-decorates his apartment when he tires of the old image) to his girlfriend ("He decided she should wear nothing but white linen
jumpsuits, with shoulder pads. The Rosie the Riveter look, he said" (Bodily
Harm, p. 97).
Rennie's friend Jocasta, who runs a punk fashion boutique, also
manipulates people's tastes, convincing them that the grotesque and bizarre
are in fact stylish. All she has to do is start wearing, for example, bathtub
chains around her neck and within a couple of weeks several of her
customers will be doing the same. Like Jake, she has contrived a particular
image for herself, even changing her name from the prosaic "Joanne" to
the exotic" Jocasta" to better fit it.
Rennie too likes to package people, playfully "re-doing" them-suggesting ways they could change their appearance so as to achieve a different image or approximate more closely the one they desire. And in her
job as life-styles journalist, she "[liked] to write pieces about trends that
didn't really exist, to see if she could make them exist by writing about
them...People would do anything not to be thought outmoded" (Bodily
Harm, p. 29). Atwood's criticism of such image-creating and packaging
is conveyed in the plot development of this novel. As Rennie becomes inadvertently embroiled in the political affairs of the Caribbean island she
has been assigned to, she necessarily loses her detached, journalist's stance
and can no longer engage simply with surfaces. Shebecomes more and more
disgusted with her career and realizes she will no longer be able to write
the kind of radical-chic material she has been doing.


Atwood, then, is alarmed by the excessiveimage-consciousnessof contemporary culture. We have become a society of imitators, modeling both
ourselves and our environments after other people and other environments,
which are often themselves imitations. One of Atwood's most direct
references to this phenomenon is made via the Surfacing protagonist's
description of a poster in a seedy bar she stops at:
...A blown-up photograph of a stream with trees and rapids and
a man fishing. It's an imitation of other places, more southern
ones, which are themselves imitations, the original someone's
distorted memory of a nineteenth-century English gentleman's
shooting lodge. (Surfacing, p. 32)
This imposing of images upon our livesprevents us from spontaneously
responding to and freshly perceiving our experiences. Furthermore, it can
result in a dangerous kind of passivity, a detachment from the urgency or
moral implications of our experiences. The popular arts of film and
photography are particularly prone to creating this kind of amoral aloofness.
Many of Atwood's protagonists recoil from having their picture taken, and
many of her unattractive characters, those who are hopelesslyalienated from
their true identities (such as Peter of The Edible Woman and David of Surfacing), are camera buffs. Atwood appears to believe that movies and
photographs impose an artificial meaning upon the sceneor eventthey frame
and automatically distance the viewer from it. As Rennie observes, "As
soon as you take a picture of something it's a picture. Picturesque" (Bodily Harm, p. 132). In this particular instance she is thinking about the vastly different effect seeing a newspaper photo of a man being beaten up by
the police would have on her from witnessing the actual event. One is inevitably emotionally distanced from an incident captured in a photograph.
In Surfacing, David and another character, Joe, transform phenomena
the narrator-protagonist considers evilor immoral (a dead heron slaughtered
by unfeeling campers, a stuffed moose family used for a gimmicky advertisement, her friend Anna being forced to pose naked by her insensitive
husband) into "camp" subjects when they put them on film. The very title
of the movie they are making, Random Samples, suggests that it is presenting life as a collection of discrete moments removed from any moral or
emotional contexts. The cool, cynical attitude of David and Joe imbues
all the shots and makes them all of equal significance; a mercilessly killed
animal is regarded in the same way as an eccentric's house built out of
David is so habituated to seeing life as through a camera that he can't
encounter a new experiencewithout comparing it with a celluloid analogue.
The protagonist reports his reaction to meeting an old Canadian guide in

a remote, depressed outpost: " 'A groovy old guy, eh?' David says when
we're outside. He's enjoying himself, he thinks this is reality: a marginal
economy and grizzled elderly men, it's straight out of Depression photo
essays" (Surfacing, p. 35). His attitude reveals both the extent to which
his perceptions have been shaped by the media and the way the media can
remove the immediacy and ugliness of life and make it appear quaint or
One of the most prevalent popular uses to which the camera has been
put in recent years is pornographic films. In Bodily Harm Rennie's growing skepticism of the aloof, cynical attitude she perceives all around her
takes a stride forward when, asked by her editor to do a piece on the
"playfulness" of pornography, she views a series of such films. She
watches the first few clips--a woman with a dog, a woman with a pig, a
woman with a donkeynwith detachment. But then suddenly there flashes
on the screen a shot of a rat poking out of a woman's vagina, and Rennie
finds herself rushing from the room and throwing up. She "[feels] that a
large gap had appeared in what she'd been used to thinking of as reality"
(Bodily Harm, p. 188). In fact, Rennie is beginning to lose her ability to
view reality as it is presented by the radical-chic media. By the end of the
novel, when as a political prisoner she has become "massively involved"
with reality, she realizes with horror that rats in the vagina could very well
be one of the tortures soon to be inflicted on herself or other women
A final form of popular culture that Atwood sees as creating the kind
of image-consciousnessand moral detachment discussedabove is "pop art,"
in which ordinary, trivial, or sordid artifacts of contemporary life are
displayed in vividly realistic and often cynical fashion. In Bodily Harm
Rennie interviews a sculptor of "visual puns": tables and chairs made out
of life-sizedmannequins in erotic costumes or poses. The effect of this kind
of art is similar to that of Random Samples--that is, a levelling down of
serious subjects to the same significance as the non-serious. In these visual
puns, people are placed on the same level as objects, and sexual activity
is presented as utilitarian, like sitting or eating.
In Lady Oracle Joan's lover, Chuck Brewer, who goes by the name
of "The Royal Porcupine" (another example, like that of Jocasta in
Bodily Harm, of someone changing his name in order to fashion a new
image), creates "con-create poetry": he collectsdead animals that have been
hit by cars, freezes them, and displays them in art galleries. Although his
supposed intention is to reveal society's insensitivity to animals, what actually comes across is a kind of aloofness, an artistic distance, from the
horror of the situation (as is evidenced by the fact that the SPCA pickets
his showings).Taking the accident victimsout of their contexts and attaching


neutral-sounding titles to each display (such as "Racoon and Young, Don

Mills and 401, Broken Spine, Internal Hemorrhage") has a numbing effect. If the Royal Porcupine really wanted to drive home the urgency of
the situation, he would do better to take the people to the scene of the
Atwood's novels thus present us with many examplesof popular culture
and reveal the pernicious way it influences people's attitudes and deadens
their moral sensibility. It is very difficult to think for oneself when the media
is constantly bombarding one with pre-fabricated opinions. Most of Atwood's protagonists struggle against this influence--the extreme case being
the Surfacing protagonist, who destroys the trendy movie her friends are
making, refuses to look in the mirror or to be concerned with her image,
and gives up language altogether because it prevents her from thinking for
Atwood's own way of combatting this influence, apparently, is to write
novels that startle her readers into fresh thinking. This explanation is one
way to account for the surreal and supernatural elements critics have noted
in her fiction. These features defy the reader's expectations of the realistic
novel, the genre her works for the most part belong to. Furthermore,
Atwood's technique of leaving her novels open-ended is a way of frustrating
the reader's need to have a shape and a meaning imposed on the narrative.
Atwood, then, is prodding her readers to interpret experiencesfor themselves
and to resist the popular trend toward knee-jerk thinking.
'My citations are from the following editions: The Edible Woman (New York: Warner
Books, 1969);Surfacing (New York: Fawcett Popular Library, 1972); Lady Oracle (New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1976); Life Before Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979); Bodily
Harm (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982).