That event falls roughly in the middle of Margaret Atwood’s career, and I find it helps me to put her writing in context. Just one year later, she published Bodily Harm, her 5th novel which features a protagonist addicted to harmful relationships. Themes of power and its abuse run through her writing, with women often on the receiving end.
Recently, I picked up Wilderness Tips (1991). I had previously read Alias Grace, but this was my first time reading her short fiction. I have to stay that I mostly enjoyed it. Anyone reading Atwood knows that they are holding in their hands a work of fine craft. But at the level of gut response, I find the insistent adultery distasteful. One character expresses the majority view when he says “Monogamy is a curious anthropological artefact, or else a sort of heroic feat.”
The male characters aren’t universally bad, but there are some real villains. George, of the story “Wilderness Tips,” is “not all that fond of men on purely social occasions because there are few ways he can manipulate them.” He is married to a woman with two sisters, one of whom he has sporadic affairs with, and the other he has his sights on. The narrator tells us “George would like to go to bed with Pamela, not because she is beautiful … but because he has never done it.” What is generally true in the other stories is especially clear here: modern marriage is an empty charade.
My favorite story is “Uncles,” and not only because it includes a rare healthy marriage. It features a young woman named Susanna who rises from obscurity to national fame as a celebrity journalist. The pivot point of the story comes in a conversation with one of her former newspaper colleagues. He asks her to write a guest feature about how the women’s movement has accomplished its goals, but also hurt men in the process. In this memorable exchange, she splutters “How about the wage differential? How about the rape statistics? How about all those single mothers on welfare? They’re the fastest-growing group below the poverty line! I don’t think that was a goal, do you?” Their conflict foregrounds the way that successful women inspire jealousy among men, while still advocating for an unfinished cause. Perhaps Atwood’s own experience comes out here.
In the 1700s, one poet wrote that he was guided “As with a moral View design’d to cure the Vices of Mankind.” I don’t think that Atwood has any deliberate moral purpose in her fiction – she is too postmodern for that – but she does draw our attention to injustice. So often, she leads us to take a hard look at what is ugly and brutal in society. That act, though it doesn’t offer any cure in itself, counters our tendency toward callousness. It allows us to go out of our insular world to feel the real pain of others. Without that empathy, there can be no change.