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Margaret Atwood

Jacques Leclaire
Jean-Michel Lacroix

«Psychoanalysis, Phenomenology, and the Novels of Margaret Atwood: A New Critical Approach»

Sonia Mycak

Texte intégral

1Margaret Atwood is one of Canada's foremost writers, and arguably one of the most popular. Her work has been hailed by feminist critics as an incisive portrayal of women's inequality within society and relations between the sexes. Marxist critics have noted her comments upon materialism and commodification within a capitalist social order. More traditional academic appraisals have noted her awareness of and clever use of literary conventions such as the quest romance. Postcolonial theory has opened the way for her works being seen to comment upon international and imperial relations, particularly in terms of imperialism and the schism between the developed and developing worlds. More recently her work has been positioned as postmodernist given its fascination with the fragmentation of identity and multiple versions of reality. In addition to this, she has never lost her position as being a kind of national figure who has presented Canada, Canadians and the Canadian viewpoint to the world. Given what appears to be a wide range of reactions and appraisals of her work, is there room — or need — for yet another critical stance?

2I would like to argue that despite the prolific amount of critical work which has been written to-date, there is indeed the scope and necessity for another approach to Atwood's work. Further to this, I would like to suggest and hopefully substantiate my own claims that this new approach should be based on two particular schools of philosophy-psychoanalysis and phenomenology.

3In this paper I would like to do a number of things. First, I would like to introduce my own approach to Atwood's novels. Without going into the details of the novels themselves, I will describe the kind of analysis I have undertaken, and in doing so put forward a new critical approach — an approach which draws upon psychoanalytic and phenomenological theories to interpret Atwood's work. Having described my own approach, next I would like to discuss other approaches to Atwood's work. Since space does not permit me to discuss them all, I will summarise the most significant and popular approach to Atwood's work to-date — the feminist approach. After summarising the feminist approach, I will point out some of the problems with this particular critical stance. In doing so, I would not wish to negate the importance of this approach but to point out what I consider to be certain oversights feminist critics have made. Finally, I will suggest some ways in which a psychoanalytic and phenomenological interpretation can solve these problems, and in doing so justify my own approach.

4I would like to begin by describing my work — a book entitled In Search of the Split Subject: Psychoanalysis, Phenomenology and the Novels of Margaret Atwood recently published in Canada. As the title suggests, the book is a critical account of Margaret Atwood's novels in terms of psychoanalytic and phenomenological theories, and in it I interpret six of the novels — The Edible Woman, Lady Oracle, Life Before Man, Bodily Harm, Cat's Eye and The Robber Bride — from this theoretical perspective. Surfacing and The Handmaid's Tale are discussed in a separate section of their own, since they are significantly and fundamentally different in form from the other six novels, and are best suited to other forms of critical analysis.

5The methodology I have used to interpret Atwood's novels is a strategic interweaving of psychoanalytic and phenomenological theories, and the application of these theories to the text by way of close reading. B y this I mean that I take certain events, characters, behaviours and emotions as they occur in the fictional world of each novel and analyse and interpret them according to psychoanalytic and phenomenological thought. To do this I draw upon key notions and concepts for my interpretation; and while ideas such as the 'oedipal complex', 'the unconscious', 'the ego', 'the symbolic' are undoubtedly intrinsic concepts, they remain open to idiosyncratic use on the part of critic and theorist alike. In acknowledgment of this, and in deference to the magnitude of the field, I wrote a glossary of key terms.

  • 1 Peter Brooks exemplifies this in his argument for a psychoanalytic methodology that is "textual an (...)
  • 2 James Mellard writes: "A psychoanalytic theory of interpretation finally rests on a theory of a te (...)

6It would be a fair question to ask why I chose to work with these particular frameworks. I believe psychoanalysis has the greatest theoretical potential and allows for the complexity necessary for a highly developed account of human existence and of the self. In this I draw upon psychoanalysis not in its clinical setting, but as a body of knowledge that theorises psychological and psychical life. That is, I draw upon psychoanalytic theory for its philosophical and ontological insights into the human condition, not for its value as a therapeutic or transferential dynamic between analyst and analysand. In this, of course, my approach is at odds with a transferential model of reading practice (a focus on process rather than content) which marks contemporary use of psychoanalysis and is regarded by some in the field as either most appropriate1 or definitive2 of a psychoanalytic approach. Certainly, psychoanalysis functions in a therapeutic context by invoking certain interpersonal relations between analyst and analysand. Nonetheless outside the clinical setting, it provides explanations for certain actions, and in theory establishes models and patterns according to which human behaviour may be explained, and it is this non-therapeutic function of the discipline upon which I call.

7At times, however, I choose to weave in phenomenological concepts, and my reason for doing this is an attempt to enhance rather than detract from the complexity of the issues raised. For while psychoanalysis theorises a self, that self is a subject of perception, and phenomenology best explains the way a person perceives. That is, while psychoanalysis addresses the ways in which an 'I' is constructed, phenomenology investigates the ways in which that T relates to the world. In this the theories are perfectly compatible, and together they provide an excellent framework from which to examine subjectivity and the complexities of the self. In turn, my methodology becomes a kind of interlacing of approaches in textual interpretation.

8This interlacing occurs at strategic points. Whenever a particular character, relationship, behaviour or emotion is best explained by phenomenological notions rather than psychoanalytic ones or indeed by a combination of the two, I draw upon whatever is most pertinent.

9As may be obvious from my concern with the self, the psyche and subjectivity, in general my focus is upon characterisation — why the characters are the way they are, why they do what they do, and why we identify with them. Through the 'marriage' of psychoanalytic and phenomenological theories, I try to explain the idiosyncrasies of Atwood's characters, their distinct personalities, and the inner workings of their minds. However I freely admit that my interpretations are both illustrative and speculative. The result is that meaning is conferred; in much the same way as analytic discourse acts to construct meaning by including elements not immediately accessible, so too does my reading of Atwood's work impute meaning to the text. In this, my approach is not unlike the more traditional schools of criticism that seek metaphorical, symbolic or allegorical meanings in their exposition of theme. In much the same way as the analyst looks to make sense of a situation presented through circumscribed dialogue, I try to make sense of fictional events, times, places and thoughts, and then suggest an interpretation that is credible given the parameters of the text. This may mean, however, that interpretations reach beyond the obvious commonsense significance of a particular event, character, statement or setting. And it is, perhaps, at this point that an approach that is 'conservative' in that it is a close reading becomes contentious by generating meanings otherwise non-existent and opening the significance of the text beyond its manifest scope. While I would contend that such a reading has the potential to 'open' the text, in order to counteract critical audacity informed by psychoanalytic assumption, I try to remain faithful to the text by supporting statements with evidence — direct quotes from the text.

10In ending this description of my project, I would like to outline what I think are the results. I do think that the book provides new interpretations of the novels, and explains what were hitherto considered as inconsistencies or ambiguities within each text. I also think that the book establishes a new critical method for interpreting Atwood's work, and it is possible that this method could be used to explicate both the poetry and the short fiction for which Atwood is otherwise known.

  • 3 Edible Woman, for example, was readily seen by critics Fee and Cawker as being prophetic in its pr (...)

11What of other approaches to Atwood's work? The most significant and most popular critical approach to Atwood's novels has been a feminist approach. Looking back over the entire body of criticism, it is quite startling how often initial reviews of the novels have reflected a socio-political standard of measure, in that the question of whether or not or to what degree each novel can be termed 'feminist' has often dominated the reviews3. By this Atwood's novels were immediately positioned within a feminist, political or ideological domain.

12While reviews may, by nature of their length and purpose, oversimplify issues, a distinct body of criticism emerged which looked into these concerns in more depth. In his Margaret Atwood: a Feminist Poetics, Frank Davey noted that all Atwood's fiction has a didactic tone and appears to be offered as a commentary upon contemporary society (165). His view is, I believe, indicative of a general tendency among what was a growing body of feminist scholars who analysed the novels in sociological terms, with a focus upon the problems of contemporary society as they pertain to the marginalised position of women. In general, feminist appraisal depended upon a perceived preoccupation with sexual difference and social restraint in Atwood's work. Consequently Atwood was seen to be examining issues such as marriage, female sexuality, male-female relations, the female body and body image, stereotyping, socialisation and the pressures of conforming to pre-ordained oppressive roles. In short, the broadly-based sexually specific exploitation which allegedly marks our society was seen to be the determining feature in Atwood’s work.

  • 4 For Maureen McNeil and Earl G Ingersoll Cat's Eye was seen to be depicting the ways girls become w (...)
  • 5 In critical accounts of Edible Woman, for example, the protagonist’s identity as a woman became th (...)
  • 6 M. Sharon Jeannotte and Cathy Davidson saw feminist consciousness-raising as operative within Lady (...)
  • 7 Lucy M Freibert's account of Lady Oracle, for example, concluded with a kind of feminist manifesto (...)
  • 8 Linda Howe, for example, saw Bodily Harm as part of a tradition of feminist survival narratives an (...)

13This focus upon society and women's position within it took a number of forms within the critical domain. Gender roles and socialisation became the centre of attention for some critics4. Much attention was paid to the female protagonists of Atwood's novels, specifically their identity as women5. For some critics, the perceived feminist consciousness in Atwood's work was a vehicle for consciousness-raising in the female reader.6 As literature with a feminist agenda, Atwood's work was seen by some to not only describe gender inequalities, but to prescribe possible avenues of liberation, of female growth, insight and change. Some critics identified a kind of feminist manifesto whereby Atwood was seen to be advocating or suggesting a certain plan of action, telling her female readers how they should behave7. Another common strategy of feminist scholarship was to position Atwood's work within a definable literary tradition which has at heart a specific feminist aim. In this, Atwood's novels were placed alongside those of other women writers, and contextualised as being part of a canon of twentieth century women’s writing8.

  • 9 I refer to the work of Barbara Godard, Pamela S. Bromberg and Jessie Givner, all of whom interpret (...)
  • 10 Despite an initial allegiance to Irigarayan theory, Barbara Godard takes a place within this criti (...)
  • 11 For Frank Davey, for example, the novels involved "a descent to an underworld that affirms the ins (...)

14In general, a distinct lack of theorising characterised the early feminist accounts of Atwood's novels. In part, this may reflect upon the nature of the Anglo-American feminist movement as a whole, its early emphasis upon empirical evidence over what is conceivably ivory-tower philosophical debate, and its privileging of the actual lived experiences of women as an index of literary criticism. Nonetheless, as the influence of post-structuralist theories spread, so too did feminist acceptance of them, and along with this, feminist accounts of Atwood's novels informed by contemporary theory began to appear. While the titles of articles published recently reflect the influence of theoretical discourse in the reception of Atwood's work, the earlier critical accounts, and indeed accounts which are identifiably feminist readings, tended to rely mainly on what was, in the American, British and Australian academy called French feminist' theory, notably the work of Luce Irigaray9. Speaking of theories which are external to the text, it is worth noting that significant attention was paid to analysing Lady Oracle in light of the feminist tradition of women's mythology — the figure of the Great Goddess or Great or Earth Mother in her various manifestations and forms10. The application of certain psychoanalytic principles or elements of a psychoanalytic approach to the feminist analysis of Atwood's work occurred periodically. However, the accounts which drew upon psychoanalysis either used the terminology in a somewhat perfunctory manner, or employed the psychoanalytic model for a specific aim or with political intent11.

  • 12 The Split Subject in the Novels of Margaret Atwood: A Reading in Terms of Psychoanalytic and Pheno (...)

15Having summarised the feminist approach to Atwood's work, I would like to raise some of the problems I think are inherent within a feminist critical stance. Elsewhere12 I have discussed these problems in detail and with respect to individual texts, however, for the purpose of this paper I would wish to raise a number of general issues which are common to many accounts.

16One problem with the feminist approach is to do with its emphasis upon social realism. The stress upon social reality — the judgment that Atwood's novels are feminist ones because they realistically portray the experience of being a woman in a contemporary (patriarchal) world — means a feminist approach privileges the lived experience of reader and author, and uses that lived experience as an index of literary worth. This, I believe, is too limiting. In most of the feminist accounts, the novels are judged according to how accurately and authentically they represent women's experience. Such a judgement may hinder creativity, negate the autonomy of the text, and place too much value on authorial intention.

17Another problem is to do with characterisation. Feminist critics too often negate (or ignore) the complexity of characterisation in Atwood's work. In feminist accounts, individual men are too often seen to be the direct cause of women's oppression, while women are too often seen to be victims not responsible for their own plight. At the level of the narrative, this is a problem since Atwood's characters are not readily drawn into good and bad camps. We see women who are assertive, aggressive and destructive, and men who are passive victims unable to protect themselves against this onslaught of feminine power (think of the dynamic between Nate and Elizabeth in Life Before Man). Female friendship often seems conditional, other times it is nonexistent, and certain women readily inflict pain on other women as well as men (The Robber Bride is the most poignant example of this, although Cat's Eye is an earlier example). Women cannot be totally exonerated, and often men when portrayed as holding more power, are themselves part of a System they may perpetuate but have not necessarily chosen and as individuals can do nothing about.

18In general, then, the feminist judgment of male characters tends to disregard the complex nature of the relationships between characters in the fictional world. There are a number of consequences of this, and they are both theoretical and linked to our understanding of the narrative and thematic significance of the texts.

19First, the function of the male characters is not fully explored since these characters are condemned or deemed insignificant for the protagonist's development, or significant only in a negative way.

20Second, only the structures of male aggression and female passivity are given any theoretical credibility. The female psyche is connected to social structures of male power, and the relationship of self to society and the inter-subjective dynamics of self and other is confined solely within a matrix of gendered dynamics of power.

21Third, inter-subjective dynamics (relations between characters) are prioritised over intra-subjective ones (or what goes in within a characters' own mind). Most of the feminist accounts of Atwood's novels, like much of the so-called Anglo-American feminist theory upon which they have been based, rely solely upon the conscious, deliberate factors involved in the formation of identity, without taking into account the ambiguity and contradiction which are the manifestation of deeper unconscious thoughts and feelings.

22Fourth, characters tend to be analysed in terms of a broadly-based, sexually-specific exploitation. While such an approach may appear to retain an emphasis upon collectivity and its effects upon the women characters, it threatens to neglect the specificities of each protagonist's situation. In other words, generic social movements are analysed at the expense of investigations into the construction of each protagonist's particular and individual psyche.

23Fifth, simplistic concepts of blame on the one hand, and vindication on the other are not productive, either in interpreting the themes of the novels or in understanding the inequalities within society that feminism is concerned about.

24Implicit in my naming these difficulties is a belief that these difficulties can be overcome, and I believe that psychoanalysis in conjunction with phenomenology is the perfect framework for overcoming these problems.

25There are, I would argue, certain theoretical benefits associated with my approach. The first is that my approach allows for a more expansive notion of sexuality — one from which the women characters and protagonists stand to gain. In my work, a psychoanalytic perspective allows me a focus on libidinal rather than purely sexual energy, to deal with familial libidinal relations rather than conventional notions of sex and the struggle for power. This means I am able to look not at the masculine as such but at the paternal, and also at interconnected maternal and oedipal desires. This wider focus is an important distinction because while feminist accounts have focused upon relations of inequity between the sexes, they have failed to acknowledge the fact that it is the familial pre-social situation which sets the dynamic in place. It is precisely in the familial situation that relations of power and structure are formed — relations which are fundamental and pre-date and pre-determine adult relations in later life. It is also important to note that this more expansive notion of sexuality allows for a focus not only on the sexual but on the corporeal, and the role corporeality (through the investment of libidinal energies) plays in signification and the construction of the symbolic order.

26Another distinct theoretical advantage is that psychoanalysis and phenomenology posit a complex relationship between self and society. Rather than constrict this relationship within the parameters of gendered power, psychoanalysis theorises a two-way relationship of introjection and projection between the subject and the social world. With this comes the recognition that self and society are reciprocal, that in constructing a self, a social order is constructed which in turn continues to structure that self. Within this there are sexual or libidinal dynamics since paternal and maternal desire take different 'directions' and underpin the basic development of the subject and that subject's entry into the symbolic or social order. However, psychoanalysis theorises complex relations of alterity, whereby the object is not merely a gendered object, and the other is more than a sexual other, but object and other are integral for the establishment and continued maintenance of subjective identity. Thus relations between self and other, subject and object, are inherently complex and rife with ambiguity. These relations are constitutive at the same time as they are destructive, attractive at the same time as they are repellent, intra — as well as inter-subjective, and above all, necessary. Further to this, phenomenology inflects these dynamics with the realities of our external relations to the world — location, position, intention, motility, perspective, and consciousness of the self. I believe this more complex formulation of relations between the individual and society allows for the complexity (and ambiguities) evident in the characterisation of Atwood's characters to be explained.

27The third theoretical advantage of the approach I have taken is that it allows for a close examination of subjectivity — the actual construction of identity and of the self. The emphasis upon social regulation within feminist accounts means that these accounts name the existence of cultural rules without always looking at the construction of subjective identity which accompanies these cultural rules. In this, the feminist approaches too often look at social codes without looking at how those codes come into being and how and why an individual accepts them. In other words, they look at society in general but not the subject who enters it and upon whom it depends. It may be true that society and the symbolic order pre-dates the individual; but it is equally true that the individual introjects social realities and accepts them as part of himself or herself. Psychoanalysis not only describes male and female roles and identities but it attempts to explain how those very identities are constructed and assumed. A psychoanalytic account can focus upon the initial acquisition of symbolic roles as well as examining the social functioning of these roles at a later date. This is because psychoanalysis explores the construction of subjectivity itself and with it the individual's actual entry into society, and this allows for a more complex approach to the issue of gender identity. This is important because it means that the ambiguity which often surrounds gender roles can be accounted for, rather than ignored. Atwood's novels often present relationships in which men exhibit feminine characteristics, while women show personality traits normally perceived to be masculine. Using psychoanalytic theory such ambiguities in the construction of gender roles can be fruitfully explored.

28Another theoretical advantage is that psychoanalysis acknowledges unconscious processes and compulsions which rational thought belies. This acknowledgment of the unconscious and a dynamic model of the psyche whereby this unconscious is in an active relationship with the ego or conscious parts of the self is particularly productive in the case of Atwood's characters who often seem not to be in full control of their own actions or driven by irrational demands. Thus, the psychoanalytic approach allows for a focus upon intra-subjective as well as inter-subjective relations and a good look at what goes on within a character's mind. Psychoanalysis analyses relations between different parts of the self; with this sexual strategies and other forms of power play can be analysed with a much greater complexity-the complexity with which the characters interact not only with each other, but with themselves.

29The fifth theoretical advantage is that my approach broadens the significance of the protagonist's position in the domestic and marital economy by seeing it as indicative of all subjectivity and illustrative of a structural and founding principle of the social order. My approach does not negate the significance of social commentary as an aspect of Atwood's work. Indeed I focus upon society in that I focus upon the social contract and the symbolic order — this is necessary given Atwood's focus upon social dynamics. However, in focussing upon processes which are social, psychoanalysis and phenomenology allow me to acknowledge that they are structural and symbolic. Dynamics such as sexual and marital relations are post-oedipal dynamics of paternal law. They provide a symbolic position through which the individual subject participates in necessary circulatory networks of exchange. Hence they are the foundation of the social contract in general, rather than the consequence of a specifically Atwoodian scenario or a specifically patriarchal form of society. As a consequence, I can examine the identity of each protagonist in a way which acknowledges the sexually-specific place of the women while also recognising that the demands placed upon these women are, in fact, symbolic ones. This opens the way for analysis into the question of how the protagonists negotiate the contents and forms of their own psyches in light of symbolic demands.

30Lastly, my approach allows for a more complex understanding of the characters. In my analysis the protagonists, their identities as women, are brought to the fore. However, their structural role within society is also recognised. Drawing upon the theories of psychoanalysis and phenomenology allows me to acknowledge the sexually specific place of women, but do so by interrogating the very terms upon which culture is founded. In this there are no simple victors and vanquished, but people — both men and women — who are caught in a System which is not easy to change. This focus upon the construction of identity means I can explore the very issues feminist critics assess — female sexuality, male-female relations, marriage, the maternal, masculine desire. However, psychoanalysis and phenomenology allow me a more refined exploration by analysing these issues in a wider context of other determinants of subjective identity — representation, signification, libidinal energy, the body, the ego, the unconscious and the like. This makes for a more theoretically precise analysis than conventional feminist accounts which see the situation the protagonist finds herself in largely in terms of broadly-based social discrimination.

31My approach does not apportion blame; it does not see men as one-dimensional wilful oppressors and women as helpless victims. I try to attribute to the characters a more precise function. Where the characters are undeniably acting in their capacity as men or women, I try to articulate the nature — the aim and function — of their sexually-specific roles. This often means that peripheral characters, especially male characters, are explained. My account shows, for example, that the men function as agents or signifiers of paternal desire. In this they are necessary — even if unpalatable. After all, psychoanalysis teaches us that the intervention of paternal and hence masculine desire is essential in order that the daughter not remain locked in the stifling symbiosis of maternal union. Therefore the male characters offer a means of escape from the pre-subjective and pre-oedipal bond, and allow the protagonist entry into the circulatory and symbolic realm. Thus rather than condemn these figures as power-hungry, I try to explain their behaviour, and acknowledge that they too have a necessary role to play.

32Margaret Atwood is a novelist whose writing shows a concern with the inner workings of the mind. She creates psychologically complex protagonists and very interesting peripheral characters. The relationships between the characters are complicated, and sometimes difficult to understand. The fact that both psychoanalysis and phenomenology are theoretical disciplines that explore the formation of identity and construction of the self make them the perfect framework for analysing Atwood's novels. Together these philosophies can provide the key to understanding recurrent motifs, events and relationships in the fictional world and shed light on the subtleties of Atwood's fiction which are often overlooked. I would hope that the credibility of this reading will show the value of psychoanalysis and phenomenology in interpreting and understanding literature, and provide a framework by which other writers' works could be analysed.


Works Cited

Amiel, Barbara. «Life after Surviving». Maclean's 93, 42, 15 October 1978: 66-67.

Andersen, Margaret. «Feminism and the Literary Critic». Atlantis 1, 1, Fall 1975: 3-13.

Bach, Peggy. «Review of Lady Oracle». MacGill's Literary Annual Vol. 1. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Salem Press, 1977: 400-403.

Bromberg, Pamela S. «The Two Faces of the Mirror in the Edible Woman and Lady Oracle». Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms. Kathryn VanSpanckeren and Jan Garden Castro, eds. Southern Illinois University Press, 1988: 12-23.

Brooks, Peter. «The Idea of a Psychoanalytic Criticism.» Critical Inquiry 13 (1978): 334-48.

Cady, Barbara. «Too much success causes her demise». Los Angeles Times 5 December 1976, Books section: 14.

Chernin, Kim. The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.

Crittenden, Yvonne. «This One's a Real Find». Sunday Sun (Toronto) 30 September 1979: S15.

Davey, Frank. Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984.

Davidson, Cathy N. «Canadian Wry: Comic Vision in Atwood's Lady Oracle and Laurence's The Diviners». Regionalism and the Female Imagination 3, 2-3, Fall-Winter 1977: 50-55.

Fee, Margery and Ruth Cawker. Canadian Fiction: an Annotated Bibliography. Toronto: Peter Martin Associates. 1976: 16-17.

Freibert, Lucy M. «The Artist as Picaro. The Revelation of Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle». Canadian Literature 92, Spring 1982: 23-33.

Givner, Jessie. «Mirror Images in Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle». Studies in Canadian Literature 14, 1, 1989: 139-146.

Godard, Barbara. «My (m)Other, My Self: Strategies for Subversion in Atwood and Hebert». Essays on Canadian Writing 26, Summer 1983: 13-44.

Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. «Fiction and (Post) Feminism in Atwood's Bodily Harm». Novel 19, 1, Fall 1985: 5-21.

Howe, Linda. «Narratives of Survival». Literary Review (Madison, NJ) 26, 1, Fall 1982: 177-84.

Ingersoll, Earl G. «Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye»: Re-Viewing Women in a Postmodern World». Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 22, 4, October 1991: 17-27.

Jeannotte, M. Sharon. «An Emotional Divide». Sphinx 3, Winter 1977: 81-85.

Johnston, Sue Ann. «The Daughter as Escape Artist». Atlantis: a Women's Studies Journal 9, 2, Spring 1984: 10-22.

Keitner, Wendy. «Review of Lady Oracle and Selected Poems». Quarry 26, 2, Spring 1977: 49-52.

McNeil, Maureen. «Margaret Atwood: Cat's Eye» review. Feminism and Psychology 1, 2: 297-299.

Mellard, James M. Using Lacan Reading Fiction. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Mycak, Sonia. In Search of the Split Subject: Psychoanalysis, Phenomenology, and the Novels of Margaret Atwood Toronto: ECW Press, 1996.

Parsons, Ann. «The Self-Inventing Self: Women Who Lie and Pose in the Fiction of Margaret Atwood». Gender Studies - New Directions in Feminist Criticism. Judith Spector, ed. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1986: 97-109.

Patton, Marilyn. «Lady Oracle»: The Politics of the Body». Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 22, 4, October 1991: 29-48.

Rao, Eleonora. Strategies for Identity: The Fiction of Margaret Atwood New York: Lang, 1993.

Salutin, Rick. «The Culture Vulture: Chomsky, Atwood, and a Political Analysis of the Maple Leafs». This Magazine 14, 2, March 1980: 31-32.

Sciff-Zamaro, Roberta. «The Re/membering of the Female Power in Lady Oracle». Canadian Literature 112, Spring 1987: 32-38.

Solecki, Sam. «Circles of Despair». Canadian Forum 59, November 1979: 28-29.

Spector, Judith A. «The Fatal Lady in Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle». University of Hartford Studies in Literature 17, 3, 1985: 33-44.

Struthers, J. R. «Tale of multiple identities has more than one identity of its own». London Free Press 2 October 1976: 49.

Tanner, Stephen L. «Those Tedious Extremist Victories». Chronicles of Culture 4, 4, July-August 1980: 13-14.

Texmo, Dell. «The Other Side of the Looking Glass: Image and Identity in Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman». Atlantis 2, 2, pt 1, Spring 1977: 65-76.


1 Peter Brooks exemplifies this in his argument for a psychoanalytic methodology that is "textual and rhetorical" over and above "methodologically disquieting" thematic readings (335).

2 James Mellard writes: "A psychoanalytic theory of interpretation finally rests on a theory of a textual unconscious, an unconscious that is shared by both text and critic, one mediated by language, of course, but one created between text and critic (as between analysand and analyst) in a process like the analytic transference" (5).

3 Edible Woman, for example, was readily seen by critics Fee and Cawker as being prophetic in its pre-women's liberation stance. In judging Lady Oracle Barbara Cady unambiguously labelled it a "woman's book" (14), while Peggy Bach saw it as waving feminist banners. Early assessment of Life Before Man focussed on the question of whether it should be seen as being contemporaneous with the women's movement, against it, or beyond it. Critics Barbara Amiel and Rick Salutin categorised the novel as feminist and political, while Yvonne Crittenden felt that it "takes a swipe at the muddled thinking of the women's movement" (S 15). Sam Solecki noted that even though Atwood herself is a leading feminist, in Life Before Man political activity is cited only to be criticised, while Stephen Tanner argued that the novel totally discredits the politically-oriented feminist position. This measuring of the level of feminist politics could also be seen in reviews of Cat's Eye. Maureen McNeil, for example, found the book disappointing because Atwood had failed to provide positive images of sisterhood and the possibility of a bond between women. Likewise it was disturbing, according to McNeil, to find Atwood "being so negative" (298) in her treatment of feminism, and it was similarly disturbing to read a book in which women wield power and inflict pain on other women, and feminists appear as dogmatic while men are presented as misunderstood.

4 For Maureen McNeil and Earl G Ingersoll Cat's Eye was seen to be depicting the ways girls become women, and the psychological dimensions of the move from nature to the culture of femininity. Similarly Ann Parsons' account of The Edible Woman saw the novel as targeting "a leading source of oppression in the lives of women" (98), namely cultural pressures upon the formation of women's identity. For her the novel is primarily an examination of stereotypes which label women as being innately devious and deceitful, and the effect these stereotypes have upon the "stunted identity" and "surrendered autonomy" of women (108).

5 In critical accounts of Edible Woman, for example, the protagonist’s identity as a woman became the focal point for analysis. Dell Texmo saw her as being on a search for a meaningful and independent identity in a world which confines feminity within stereotyped and superficial images. Similarly, Margaret Andersen saw the novel as being clearly preoccupied with the lack of a female identity. The panacea, in Andersen's view, is the feminist critique which will allow women to surface and survive in a hostile world. Feminist criticism of Lady Oracle saw a woman-centered psychological analysis, whereby the State of mind of the protagonist was examined and contextualised with regard to the interpersonal relations which exist within the fictional world. A good example of this is Sue Ann Johnston's account, in which the novel was seen exclusively as dealing with one woman's attempted escape from her mother.

6 M. Sharon Jeannotte and Cathy Davidson saw feminist consciousness-raising as operative within Lady Oracle, while Elaine Tuttle Hansen saw Bodily Harm as being an answer to the post-feminism of the 1980s, characterising the novel as having a narrative structure which functions to raise the feminist consciousness of the reader by understanding the individual through collective sexual politics.

7 Lucy M Freibert's account of Lady Oracle, for example, concluded with a kind of feminist manifesto whereby Atwood is seen to be suggesting a certain plan of action to her implied female audience. This plan of action is one in which women no longer hold to the wife/mother role, demand that men share the nurturing role, and pursue interesting and challenging careers.

8 Linda Howe, for example, saw Bodily Harm as part of a tradition of feminist survival narratives and thus placed the novel alongside Sheila Ballantyne's Imaginary Crimes, Sara McAulay's Choice and Marge Piercy's Braided Lives. Sue Ann Johnston's account of Lady Oracle was marked by her positioning the novel alongside the fiction of Margaret Drabble and Anne Tyler, and contextualising all three as twentieth century women’s novels in which women search for a new identity. Further to this, as part of a feminist canon of contemporary fiction which illustrates the twentieth-century daughter's "desire for liberation" (11) Atwood was seen by Johnston to be putting forward possible avenues of "feminine growth, self-knowledge, and integration" (11) for her readers.

9 I refer to the work of Barbara Godard, Pamela S. Bromberg and Jessie Givner, all of whom interpreted Lady Oracle as exemplifying Irigaray's ideas.

10 Despite an initial allegiance to Irigarayan theory, Barbara Godard takes a place within this critical tradition, along with Roberta Sciff-Zamaro, Marilyn Patton, Judith A, Spector, Kim Chernin, J.R. Struthers and Wendy Keither, all of whom interpreted Lady Oracle in light of the Great Goddess myth.

11 For Frank Davey, for example, the novels involved "a descent to an underworld that affirms the instructive value of the Freudian unconscious" (163), Barbara Godard drew upon psychoanalytic theory in interpreting Lady Oracle as being a tale of the archetypal feminist quest. Psychoanalysis, and more specifically, the unconscious was, in Godard's account, conscripted for the feminist project, the aim of which is the self-actualisation of women based upon a recognition of unconscious forces and mythical archetypes lodged in the psyche, With this a theory of the unconscious is pointed towards the reclamation of a primeval female existence. Eleanora Rao's Strategies for Identity: The Fiction of Margaret Atwood showed the most extensive use of psychoanalysis in interpreting Atwood’s work. However, (as I argue in the introduction of my book) her use of psychoanalytic theory as a tool of interpretation remained undeveloped, nestled amid three other aspects of her argument-a focus upon narrative, an appraisal of Atwood's work as postmodernist, and an identifiably feminist perspective. In keeping with her feminist perspective, Rao saw Atwood as investigating the "ideological construction of subjectivity" (174). In general, Rao was concerned with notions of subjectivity as being either masculine or feminine and thus her focus was on "the emphasis placed by recent psychoanalysis on the importance of gender and sexual ideology" (xxii). With this gendered perspective, psychoanalysis is drawn away from being the primary focus for analysis, as indeed it is by Rao's concern for narrative and postmodernist strategy.

12 The Split Subject in the Novels of Margaret Atwood: A Reading in Terms of Psychoanalytic and Phenomenological Theory. Phd Thesis, University of New South Wales, Australia 1994.


Currently holds a University of New South Wales Vice-Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Before this, she was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow of the Australian Research Council. Her areas of expertise are Canadian and Australian literatures, and she recently undertook a national lecture tour of Canada made possible by the Canadian Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1998

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