by Margaret Atwood
Tess was evidently another of those unlucky pushovers, like the Last Duchess, and like Ophelia -- we'd studied Hamlet earlier. These girls were all similar. They were too trusting, they found themselves in the hands of the wrong men, they weren't up to things, they let themselves drift. They smiled too much. They were too eager to please. Then they got bumped off, one way or another. Nobody gave them any help.
Why did we have to study these hapless, annoying, dumb-bunny girls? I wondered. Who chose the books and poems that would be on the curriculum? What use would they be in our future lives? What exactly were we supposed to be learning from them? Maybe Bill was right. Maybe the whole things was a waste of time.
Upstairs, my parents were sleeping peacefully; they knew nothing of doomed love, of words spoken in anger, of fated separation. They were ignorant of the darker side of life -- of girls betrayed in forests, of girls falling into streams and singing till they drowned, or girls done away with for being too pleasant. All over the city, everyone was asleep, drifting on the vast blue sea of unconsciousness. Everyone except me.
In her most recent collection of linked short stories, Moral Disorder, Margaret Atwood develops the character of Nell. We meet Nell in girlhood as, at the age of eleven, she deals with her mother's pregnancy, and we follow Nell through schooling and romance, through raising her younger sister as her mother coped with what seems to be some sort of post-partum depression that goes on forever, through her unorthodox lifestyle that involves her with a married man, through her coping with her sister's mental illness, and finally to her dealing with the aging and death of her parents. Some of the stories are told in the first person and others in the third; frequently we are treated to the points-of-view of outside characters like a loving realtor or a confused stepchild. It takes a long time for the stories to link together, and as the collection nits and we realize 'I' and 'Nell' are one and the same, the collection begins to tell us something about identity and the ways in which we see ourselves. Interestingly, Nell is an 'I,' that is, she speaks from the first person point-of-view, only when she is in a position of care-giving. When she is her sister's caregiver, and then again later when she is caring for her parents. In those intermittent years, when Nell is involved with Tig and unsure of her place and stability and she ages alongside a married man, she is narrated for by an outside voice. The 'I' returns when the man's wife dies and Nell becomes more stable in her existence again. (What do we make of the need to kill off another woman here in order to find a place with a man?) Nell is able to tell her own story only when she is sure of her identity and comfortable with her role. Where things are shaky, she transitions to being told about rather than telling her own story.
Another motif that emerges, as discussed in the quote above, is the idea of the representation of women in literature and in public perception. Nell is, in her youth, fascinated by the way women fit or don't fit into the roles society determines. Her mother embarrasses her because she can't be bothered to knit for the new baby and because her own mental illness prevents her from carrying effectively for her new child. She becomes obsessed with the idea that with the sixties came the drop of the term 'adultery' -- but without adultery, she wonders, what is monogamy, and who is she? Nell wonders to herself, "I was haunted by a poem I read at the age of twenty, written by a well-known poet much older than myself. This poem claimed that all intellectual women had pimples on their bums. It was an absurd generalization, I realized; nevertheless, I worries about it." For Nell, more important than the truth of the poem is the perception that poem creates. It doesn't matter that she's pimple-free if everyone else believes otherwise. And fundamentally, that is what this book is about -- women, and the assumptions society (including other women) make about them.