- Lee Thompson Briscoe (Author)
Scarlet Letters: Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Nancy Roberts (Author)
Schools of Sympathy: Gender and Identification Through the Novel. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Arnold E. Davidson (Author)
Seeing the Dark: Maragret Atwood's Cat's Eye. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Shelley King
"Once victim, always victim: that’s the law" observes Hardy’s Tess, a figure like many nineteenth-century heroines forever identified with suffering. More than a century later her plight still moves and attracts readers, as do the fates of a number of other abject female characters: Richardson’s Clarissa, Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, James’s Isabel Archer. But why? Wherein lies the pleasure to the readers of works that feature the "spectacle of what seem[s] to be almost infinite female woe"? From meditation on this subject springs Nancy Roberts’s Schools of Sympathy, an intriguing study of gender, identification and narration in the novel. Roberts begins by considering four canonical narratives of female suffering by male authors, suggesting that "[e]ach of these books acts as a sort of school of sympathy, a site of instruction in feeling and subjectivity," and "as a place where one might learn both to feel for and to feel as a woman... [where] the heroine’s suffering serves as a catalyst for the reader’s emotional involvement and aesthetic pleasure." Each text is developed through a slightly different metaphor of education. Clarissa, for example, is read in terms of eighteenth-century speculation concerning the significance of two forms of spectacle: the theatre and the trial. Roberts deftly demonstrates the way in which the interaction of these paradigms establishes both our sympathy with the heroine and our paradoxical pleasure in her misery.
The educative function of the readerly spectacle is further developed in her consideration of The Scarlet Letter. Drawing on Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Roberts complicates her school of sympathy by examining its relationship to guilt and the desire for punishment. In many ways this chapter marks the beginning of a sustained questioning of the value of sympathy, an insistence that "sympathy is less simple and less benign than is usually supposed." She argues persuasively in her discussion of Portrait of a Lady that "as [Isabel Archer] moves others, so her novel moves us, and this is done ... through the creation and exploitation of twin desires: the first a desire to love and to pity, the second an avid desire to possess." This critique culminates in Roberts’s examination of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, in which she suggests that these lessons in sympathy are of interest "not so much for the charity that they purport to teach as for the power relations of domination and submission which they conceal."
At this point the study takes an abrupt turn to the second element of Roberts’s project, an examination of the ways in which Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood, "talk back" to the literary tradition of male-authored female suffering. It is here that this study holds the most promise, yet also, for this reader, some frustration. Formed as a reader by the previous argument, I wondered what kind of school Atwood and Carter might construct for their readers? If those traditional masculine narrators of the woes of suffering heroines teach us to read as men and to feel as women, as Roberts argues, what lessons are there to be learned from the female narrators of these prominent figures of the postmodern academy? But Roberts moves away from the model of the "school" which so dominates the opening chapters and pursues instead a less structured exploration of readership and gender. She seeks to escape through these texts the unsettling power dynamic of female victimization and reader empowerment enacted in the earlier novels and to find models of female heroic action to set against the passive suffering we have been made to witness (and take pleasure in) as readers of canonical male-authored texts.
Roberts focuses her quest for heroines in command of their own subjectivity on four contemporary works: Atwood’s Surfacing and The Handmaid’s Tale, and Carter’s "The Bloody Chamber," from the short story collection of the same name, and Nights at the Circus. Both writers have been subject to a somewhat mixed reception from feminist critics, and here Atwood receives, I think, a less sympathetic reading than Carter. Though Surfacing holds some attraction—"The novel... offers a hopeful, though far from simplistic, outlook on the possibility of female heroism and subjectivity"—Roberts sees that hope fading in Atwood’s later work, specifically in The Handmaid’s Tale, which, she argues, merely extends the pattern established in the first half of her study: "Readers have often found Richardson’s novels to be virtually pornographic in their minute discussion of female victimization. Is this novel any less so? Isn’t it another exploitation of female victimization for literary thrills and chills?"
In her reading of "The Bloody Chamber" and Nights at the Circus, Roberts takes a more affirmative approach. While she acknowledges that the short story "flirts dangerously with the pornographic," she finds value in the fact that "Carter’s fiction does force us to reassess the motives and forces behind women’s all too frequent assumption of the role of victim; it urges us to refuse that role and take responsibility for living differently." Similarly, her study of Nights at the Circus dwells on the heroic potential of the marvellous Fewers, and offers a sensitive and astute reading of the play of ambiguity and possibility that constitutes the magic of Carter’s text. Yet in doing so Roberts never engages fully with the victimization within the novel: with Madame Shreck’s profitable collection of female freaks, or the violent and sadistic relationship of the Ðpe-Man and Mignon. There is, however, much that is valuable in Roberts’ examination of the four canonical novels, and in her exploration of Atwood and Carter, though one could wish the two parts of this study of sympathy and schooling the reader had been more closely linked.
Lee Briscoe Thompson and Arnold E. Davidson, authors of Scarlet Letters: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Seeing in the Dark: Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, are also in the business of educating readers—in this case those looking for a clear, concise introduction to two of Atwood’s most controversial novels. Like Roberts, they emphasize the importance of the political in her work, but offer a more positive reading of Atwood’s later fiction. Both follow the now familiar format of the ECW Canadian Fiction series, with chapters on the importance of the work and its critical reception, followed by a reading of the text. Thompson focuses on The Handmaid’s Tale as "an intersection between institutional and gender politics," and argues that "It may not be too soon to group The Handmaid’s Tale . .. with a more overtly politicized phase in Atwood’s career," calling it "her strongest political vision to date." In her reading, Thompson emphasizes both the contradictory nature of critical response to this novel and the importance of recognizing the aesthetic complexity of Atwood’s political vision. This emphasis is perhaps most clear in her treatment of the novel’s protagonist:
readers and reviewers have tended to take strong stands on Offred as heroine or weakling. There has been a palpable feminist desire to set Offred up as a political symbol: of woman victimized, of woman resistive, of woman triumphant. In another camp, lovers of action have berated her for her passivity and her infuriating inclination to forgive her oppressors, as have those feminists who feel she lets the side down by sleeping with the enemy, as it were. ... All of these reactions seem to miss (or reject) the point that Atwood was creating a rounded character, not an Amazon or a position paper.
Thompson’s reading of the text ranges smoothly from an examination of the contexts which gave rise to Atwood’s writing of the novel and the founding of Gilead within the text, through a clear elucidation of the relationship between our present and Gilead’s "time before," the role of female and male characters, and the careful complexities of Atwood’s plot. Always she insists that we recognize the author’s refusal to supply easy models or unprob-lematic answers: "Atwood is determined to break our desire to emerge with a tidy verdict of innocent or guilty, to show that Offred, like every other character in the novel, like us, may be both simultaneously." Yet ultimately for Thompson, perhaps the greatest testimony to Atwood’s novel is its ability to generate almost Blakean contraries: "No critical position is taken on this novel that is not energetically challenged by another. That is somehow appropriate in the face of novelist who distrusts closure, a central narrative that refuses to provide an ending, and an epilogue that wraps up its speculations with a question."
In Seeing in the Dark, Arnold E. Davidson also acknowledges the diversity of response, especially with regard to "the quality of its feminism," that Atwood’s fiction can elicit. His account of the initial reviews of the novel does justice to its controversial representation of women’s relationships, but like Thompson, Davidson’s interest in this novel rests not just in its blend of the political and the personal, but in its aesthetic complexity: "the style and meaning of any novel are inextricably interconnected and meaning merges through the artistry ... Cat’s Eye is most important because it is Atwood’s most artistically accomplished novel thus far." Thus Davidson focuses on unravelling the web of inter- and intra-textual allusion from which the author crafts Elaine’s narrative. Sometimes elegantly baroque, sometimes densely overwhelming, Davidson’s analysis meticulously traces the connections between past and present through the complex of symbols, images and associations which constitute the novel. His approach, however, may at times prove daunting for the undergraduate readers who provide the main audience for the ECW Canadian Fiction series. I’ll cite just one example:
The image of Susie as an uncooked chicken also brings in the matter of wings. In the immediate context, Elaine, seeing Susie on the bed, also sees that ’[u]nderneath her, across the sheet, is a great splotch of fresh blood, spreading out like bright red wings to either side of her.’ These wings of blood, as a version of bloody feet, are a sign of the limitations imposed on women and represent another example (albeit disguised) of Atwood’s use of the ’Red Shoes’ fairytale which she employed more obviously in earlier works such as Lady Oracle and The Handmaid’s Tale. The wings relate, too, to the suggestions of women falling and women flying that run throughout the text.
Still, both Davidson and Thompson attempt, in their differing ways, to educate the reader to a sympathetic understanding of both victims and victimizers in these contemporary texts.
- On Atwood by Sandra Tomc
Books reviewed: Approaches to Teaching Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Other Works by Thomas B. Friedman, Shannon Hengen, and Sharon R. Wilson
- CanLit History Today by Marie Vaultier
Books reviewed: Tendances actuelles en histoire littéraire canadienne by Denis Saint-Jacques
- The Afterlife of Trauma by Marlene Briggs
Books reviewed: Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representations by Michael Rothberg, Echoes of Combat: Trauma, Memory, and the Vietnam War by Fred Turner, and The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony by Leigh Gilmore
- Pomo Redux by Kit Dobson
Books reviewed: RE: Reading the Postmodern: Canadian Literature and Criticism after Modernism by Robert David Stacey
- Québec réécrit ses influences by Ariane Tremblay
Books reviewed: Romanica Silesiana, no. 2: "La Réécriture dans la littérature québécoise" by Krzysztof Jarosz
MLA: King, Shelley. Educating Readers. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #169 (Summer 2001), (Blais, Laurence, Birdsell, Munro, Jacob, Chen). (pg. 172 - 175)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.