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Fonctions du Cliché : du Banal à la Violence

Claudine Raynaud
Peter Vernon

Manipulating Clichés: Margaret Atwood's Romance Narrative "Bluebeard's Egg"

Charlotte Sturgess

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  • 1 As Jean-Louis Dufays states, the text can be "defined as a cultural artefact", the preponderance of (...)

1The story "Bluebeard's Egg", in the collection of the same name, takes up Atwood's favourite theme of discord between the sexes and its attendant uneasy balance of power. In the narrative, "romance" and its associated clichés articulate a system of meaning which could be qualified as a lesson to the reader in the uses, misuses, and constraints of the reading process. Playing upon the cliché's preconstructed, codified status, its complicity with systems of values, Atwood seeks to challenge such systems. The narrative therefore inscribes violence on several levels: within the represented world as ambivalence between narrator and characters; within discourse as the breakdown of structures of language and the implosion of codes; in the relationship forged between text and reader through the disavowal of the reader's contract.1 This paper will attempt to examine these modes in operation which on the one hand contribute to a destructuring of the narrative, yet envisage a revitalization of its processes and thus invite us to witness an altered sense of meaning itself. I propose to work through these codified relations governing the themes of the story, contending that the represented world is an accomplice in its undoing by the representing, rhetorical forms of the cliché.

2For if the story is about the relationship between Sally and her heart-surgeon husband Ed, and her gradual realization that he is not quite the harmless citizen he seems, the progressive folding of their romance into questions of narrative form is of interest. If Ed is the object of Sally's fantasies, her idealised Other, his ambivalent and overdetermined status in the narrative from the very beginning (as the possible connexion between obtuse, mysterious Ed and the enigma of the egg becomes increasingly obvious), signals that he is "at stake" on some other level of causality. Moreover, the interaction of the two characters is submitted to the formulaic authority of fairy tale narratives, for their plot is both increasingly embedded in, and finally absorbed into, the master narrative "Bluebeard's Egg", and also frequently disrupted on a discursive level by scraps of formulaic romance. If, as we are told by the narrator, Ed "manages to make it through the forest with all its witches and traps and pitfalls and end up with the princess, who is Sally", his own role is problematical, his suitability and mutability into Rescuer/Prince Charming is constantly challenged. Thus, by a multiplication of codes and a simultaneous slicing through the conventions on which such romance relies, links are made between Ed, character in the plot, and Ed as indeterminate figure of language. Thus as doubtful Prince, the object of Sally's condescending affection, Ed escapes formulation and he symbolically relocates onto the scene of some other narratorial projection: as the focal point where narrative strands converge. As an enigma which Sally continually attempts to decipher, and in the absence of a stable reference, he seems to open up a narrative space establishing the circulation and reproduction of cliché'd discourse itself. As we are told:

On good days [Sally] sees his stupidity as innocence, lamblike, shiny with the light of (for instance) green daisied meadows in the sun. When Sally starts thinking this way about Ed, in terms of the calendar art from the servicestation washrooms of her childhood, dredging up images of a boy with curly golden hair, his arm thrown around the neck of an Irish setter... she knows... she must stop at once, or Ed will vanish, to be replaced by a stuffed facsimile. (Atwood, 1988, 133)

  • 2 According to Roland Barthes, "the language is redistributed Two edges are created an obedient, conf (...)

3Here, as in other images in the story, the risk of Ed disappearing is invoked, and presages that rhetorical slide into absence where saturation of meaning provokes loss. If Ed is sucked into his defining rhetoric for lack of firm referential contours, Sally's subsequent reminder that he is a "real person" comes at the point where his inscription in the real is most in jeopardy. Clichés then establish the conflictual premises of reference itself, of policed borders and a fragile equilibrium, for Sally in her guise of fairy tale princess is left "locked outside", to "hack her way through the brambles" (ibid.). The collision of codes of reference then produces the jarring edges of language where seams stitch up the edges of disparate forms.2 One could say that within such images the cliché disarticulates the represented real, and in doing so provokes an undermining of the metaphors from within. Furthermore, the reverberations of such terms as "dredging up images", "brainless beast", "ghastly... sentimentality" and "hack" seem to indicate that such romance carries the weight of its own undoing in terms of violence. Ed's career as heart surgeon opens the way to an entire category of romance cliché: the heart-throb, the heavy heart, the heartless, "the kind symbolized by red satin surrounded by lace and topped by pink bows" (137), but also instigates loss as the accumulation of metaphor operates a falling away of the real. Thus Sally's own heart, about to "melt, fade, disintegrate" is left "beating over there by itself, detached from her, exposed and under his control". In this discursive undermining the narrator's role, and the distribution and recognition of authority is important. For if the commentary transmits Sally's continual investigation into the nature of her husband, and invites us to accept her ironical view (as such we "read" her clichés with the same critical distance as she "reads" her husband) it also destabilizes such a focus and subsequently pulls the rug out from under our — the readers'— feet.

4If irony has been qualified as the hierarchical precedence of connotation over denotation, involving both an unequal balance of power, because relying on a fundamental duplicity, and opening up textual indeterminacies, it is here the marker of a subversive, compromised narratorial responsibility. Relying on our powers of decoding, our identification with Sally's control and therefore our own distance from those cliché formulations abundantly used to qualify Ed, an ambivalence reigns as to where our allegiance could or should be invested. This is apparent in passages such as: "Watching his bent back with its frayed, poignant lettering, Sally dissolves; which is not infrequent with her. My darling Edward, she thinks. Edward Bear, of little brain. How I love you" (132; emphasis added). Here our sympathy with what could initially be taken as sincerity is turned around by a comment connoting the naively sentimental side of Sally, only to be shifted again by what we can only imagine to be a denigrating, if amorous statement reinforcing her control of the situation. Moreover here, as elsewhere in the narrative, the use of semi-colons frequently serves to juxtapose such conflicting views and to signal a logical hiatus; a type of seizure where hierarchy cannot be maintained. If, by these frequent ruptures and shifts in focus Sally is' "reread" in the light of a knowledge to which she has no access, the connotative strand which now targets her as the victim of irony, means the reader is also constrained to "reread" and his confidence in where to place his own competence is shaken.

5This gradual realization that an authority of vision is not vested where we were to believe is further borne out by the unfolding of the plot which will reveal Ed's own duplicity in hiding single-minded deceit beneath a bland exterior. That such ambivalence of focus erects the reader as a naïve construct, a proxy Sally, left with "egg", if not Ed on his face, is obviously the intention of a narrator playing games and a willingness to let the reader take the weight of decodings and encodings. This, in its turn, implies an increasing awareness of self-positioning visà-vis the reading process. To such an extent that the reiterated violence of such clichés as "hunt him down", or those of blood and gore which litter the story and are bound up with the fairy tale, come to resemble an assault on the reader by a rhetoric which has exceeded the bounds of its romance, where the institutional control operated by the narrator has broken down. A description betraying Sally's low opinion of her husband's intelligence seems to target our own, precisely because the profusion of adjectives, the reiteration of terms and the libidinous tension on, and around such forms, reverberates along a string of connotations and speaks to us of what the narrative cannot contain and control. How else to understand the multiple allusions to "blockhead", "stupidity", "stupid", "thickness", when inflated, so to speak, by such adjectives as "monumental", "energeti", "colossal", "endearing"?

6The circulation of erotic energy and the concentration of signifiers debating the exact nature of Ed's mental state, takes us into the abstract and into a rhetorical play of distinction, comparison, grade and accumulation. Moreover, rhetoric, if not Ed, takes a further bashing with a similar accumulation pertaining to Sally's relative intelligence with "smug", "smarter than she is", "smarter than he is" (132). Can we not take this as a passion for meaning that does not speak its name and that circulates around the form of those figures which, through repetition, seem apparently divested of particular intention and thus reinvests them with energy? If so, the rhetorical play and the concomitant preponderance of clichés in "Bluebeard's Egg" serve to appropriate the voice of the doxa in a dual operation: firstly a taking on board by a controlling voice, and then a destabilizing of such control from within in order to reveal those conflicts of value at work and which narrative, by its process of development and closure, attempts to harmonize. "Stupidity" and "cleverness" and their multiple inscriptions in the clichés, thus come to resemble an irresolvable dialectic where the stakes are a re-established hierarchy of focus, but where the hovering threat of an inversion of value, of things being dangerously other than they seem remains to the end, there where the central image of bluebeard's egg itself raises the spectre of a collapse of fixed terms: "Sally thinks: the egg is alive, and one day it will hatch. But what will come out of it?" (164). When, as the narrator tells us "all sorts of quagmires, all sorts of sinkholes"is the fate from which Ed escapes, thanks to Sally as "clever and witty heroine" who "passes over the equally clever and witty firstlead male in order to marry... the stupid one, the one who would have been arrested and condemned and executed", we are conscious once more that as conflicting values pile up, the narrative control they were intended to structure folds in, creating a circuit of indeterminacy, and gesturing perhaps the blind spot in the eye of looking, that is the place where, through irresolution, a cultural positioning is signalled. For this weakening gives way to another source of voice, taking up the implications of the clichés, undermining their ideological premises by opposing another view. Thus "sinkhole" and "quagmire" are put to use again, this time in critical judgement of Sally's biased views, as the cliché is appropriated by a voice of common sense revealing the dubious grounds of Sally's belief in her powers of redemption.

7Clichés are, then, the unsecured bases of a language open to take-over, where the appropriation, disappropriation and reappropriation of the doxa takes place within the terms of an ideological struggle for control of voice. Perhaps on one level at least, these "quagmires" are the textual markers connoting risks and pitfalls which cover a whole area of submerged knowledge: the "unsaid" riding on the back of the public "oversaid" where the wayward traveller should take heed. Such is the lesson of the increasingly obsessive link between knowledge and violence, in the way the fairy tale "Bluebeard's Egg", the object of analysis in Sally's night course entitled Forms of Narrative Fiction, embeds the search for the answer at the centre of the puzzle, where codes pile up like the chinese boxes indicated in the story and where the fate of wrongful interpretations brings on a surfeit of bodies chopped, hacked and stuck together. The egg left pristine, "pulsing", frighteningly "rose-red, crimson" but impervious to further interpretation, seems to signal the erotic fantasies of a dismemberment and desire which exceed any possible matching of codes to a successful clarification and resolution.

8If, therefore, clichés in the story are the site where violence is perpetrated on language, and institutional conventions of reading break down, we could surmise that such border-play opens up the challenge of an altered meaning, a different imaginary perspective. If "Bluebeard's Egg" bears the traces of self-division — both resistance to and complicity with institutional control — this discontinuity gestures perhaps the shifting boundaries of an emerging historical identity. Where sustained ironical detachment and the pressures of a rhetoric obsessed with its own seduction speak precisely of the inadequacy of codes to a successful account of the represented real, one can posit an exacerbated consciousness of those ideological forces at work in language. If clichés are the mark of the text's problematical social indexing, its submersion in a system of values but its construction as a unique value, their abundant inscription in much of Atwood's work has precisely to do with the figuring of a fractured (arguably postcolonial) reality, in the interstices of realistic closure. As the critic Barbara Godard has stated, much of Atwood's fiction is concerned with texts representing "the apparatus of [their] own interpretation, the activities of both reading and writing being reproduced on the level of story" (Godard, 1986, 61). One could say, then, that the rhetoric of romance is the pondering and attempted settling of an account between the two at the ideological seam which binds them together. It is at this juncture that in "Bluebeard's Egg" the production of meaning, its circulation, overspill and retreat, and its recurrent violence, by denying transcendence, invokes the body of the reader as the Other of the text, as the historically grounded subject where the drama of irresolvable narratives and discontinuous history is played out.



Atwood, Margaret, 1988. "Bluebeard's Egg." In Bluebeard's Egg and Other Stories. London: Virago.

Barthes, Roland, 1975. Le Plaisir du texte. Paris : Seuil [1994. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang.].

Dufays, Jean-Louis, 1994. Stéréotype et lecture. Liège : Mardaga.

Godard, Barbara, 1986. "Tales within tales: Margaret Atwood's Folk Narratives." Canadian Literature, 109, 57-84.


1 As Jean-Louis Dufays states, the text can be "defined as a cultural artefact", the preponderance of stereotypes "rendering most texts readable if not predictable in their content as well as in their forms" (Dufays, 1994, 35 ; my translation).

2 According to Roland Barthes, "the language is redistributed Two edges are created an obedient, conformist, plagiarizing edge... and another edge, mobile, blank (ready to assume any contours), which is never anything but the site of its effect : the place where the death of language is glimpsed" (Barthes, 1994 [1975], 6-7).


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