IN "Hack Wednesday," one of the most engaging stories in Margaret Atwood's third volume of short fiction, "Wilderness Tips," a middle-aged newspaper columnist sizes up men in an unusual way: "She can just look at a face and see in past the surface, to that other -- child's -- face which is still there. She has seen Eric [her husband] in this way, stocky and freckled and defiant, outraged by schoolyard lapses from honor. Almost every one of the 10 stories in this collection superimposes the past upon the present in an unsettling, often startling manner, which conjures up a sense of the mysterious in even the most banal relationships. The first story, "True Trash," a deceptively easy going coming-of-age tale, accustoms us to the author's bold leaps in time.
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These were two of the adventures of my professional life. The first—killing the Angel in the House—I solved. She died. But the second, telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved.
I doubt that any woman has solved it yet. It was for an ovarian cyst, a large one. It was hers, it was benign, it did not deserve to be thrown away. The question of how the disorder inscribed in the female body should be read—what order, exactly, is being disrupted? Is this disruption a menace, or is it liberation? Should it be contained, silenced, hidden, embraced, flaunted, celebrated? While it may celebrate fecundity and generation, the grotesque body, like the abject body, recalls such uncomfortable aspects of corporeality as disease, death and decay.
The load of affect attached to the grotesque is not only more complex than Bakhtin allows for; it is also distinctly gendered. Frequently correlated with disorderly behavior—promiscuity, verbosity, gluttony—grotesque female bodies have served as a kind of battle cry, an announcement of danger and a call for punishment and containment.
But is the female grotesque inevitably a misogynous image? The same. The pink V of my thighs, the triangle of curly hair, the Tampax string fishing the waters like a Hemingway hero, the white belly, the breasts half floating. A nice body. I have lain down and sweated and shaken and passed blood and feces and water and slowly alone in the centre of a circle I have passed the new person out 8 Atwood, of course, has herself been a major figure in this literary movement. Has the tradition entered a new phase in its history—a phase in which bodily flux is no longer a symbol of danger and a trigger of repulsion that also catalyzes and justifies the practices of discipline?
And if so, how does the new literary usage bring about this change in signification? In what follows I wish to address these questions by focusing on the particular challenge that the female grotesque presents to the reader of narrative fiction. When looking at texts that foreground the mutability of the female body, critical analysis must consider the ways in which the image of the body gains emotional and moral coloring from its narrative environment. Does the story in which the body is embedded tie its flux to danger, to pollution, to disorder and disgust?
Or does the text raise the possibility of reading the changing body in a Bakhtinian spirit, that is, as representing a critique of closure and convention, repression and oppression?
Put simply, in what kind of story does the female grotesque serve as an image of female menace, and what are the narrative conditions under which it might serve as an emblem of liberation? But while the congruence of body and narrative has been the mechanism that generated the traditional ideological message, it has also functioned as a site for contemporary intervention and revision. Sinclair, whose massive body has succumbed to infection.
What makes the figure of Mrs. Sinclair so ideologically effective is the consistent, multi-leveled correlation between her physical state and the story in [End Page 55] which it appears. The horrors of Mrs. In recognizing and articulating the repugnance of her body, Belford is aligning his gaze with that of normative society, a necessary final step in his reform.
His description of their married life suggests, however, that this initial large-scale beauty was achieved by temporarily halting the development of an abominable excess.
What a pygmy intellect she had—and what giant propensities! Shall I tell you of what it reminded me? The supernatural figure here performs the same function that the sickbed and then deathbed scenario does in Clarissa : it allows the graphic imagery of organic deterioration to be grafted onto the figure of a still-living female transgressor, using the abject transformation of death as an expression of her moral decay. Like Clarissa , then, Jane Eyre demonstrates the mutually illuminating effect of body imagery and narrative in the portrayal of the disorderly woman.
Jane Eyre , however, already also hints at the potential complication of the formula in the hands of a woman author, who may echo the patriarchal narrative paradigm of the female grotesque but not fully endorse it. Instead, it is doubled, layered, at once male and female, and the audience for this narrative, too, is made up of both men and women.
Rochester that dominate the moment of storytelling. But Jane, too, is watching, and while she faithfully reports all that Rochester says—that is, she replicates the horror tale of the female transgressor as part of her own narrative—she also insists on her right to regard it as she will.
Chiding Mr. Rochester later for his refusal to view his wife as anything other than an object of revulsion, she never incorporates the portrait of [End Page 57] Bertha or its narrative explication into her own later thoughts about Thornfield. She may be forced into viewing the spectacle of the grotesque and hearing its narrative explication, but, after the initial telling, she does not continue to serve as its author. When Bertha does finally reappear as the object of horrified description—large body, wild hair and all—it is, again, in the story of a man, the innkeeper who tells Jane about the fire.
Implicitly, then, Jane Eyre opens up the possibility that both female disorder and the body on which it is inscribed may possess a different meaning for women than they do for men, and that this meaning can become apparent when the grotesque body migrates out of one story and into another.
Sinclair and Bertha are two prominent, suggestive examples of an imaginative preoccupation that has taken many forms over the centuries. The fundamental principle of flux that defines the grotesque female body concretizes itself in different ways in the two cases—disease and disintegration in Clarissa , bloating and corpse-like discoloration in Jane Eyre —and it has assumed numerous other literary shapes ranging from the scatological to the gynecological, from the realistic to the fantastic.
The Monk , interestingly, also demonstrates a comic twist on the same principle, thus pointing to another strain within the tradition of the female grotesque.
In both cases, transgression and physical condition alike are filtered through the eyes of a young man who communicates his repulsion and outrage in no uncertain terms. Even mundane bodily processes such as sweating can gain a strongly negative symbolic resonance when embedded in a tale of female transgression. The plot follows the chaos that ensues when a top lawyer at a prestigious law firm suffers a mental breakdown while representing a large agrochemical company in a class-action suit.
Significantly, within the large gallery of characters who operate in this morally ambiguous universe, the foremost villain is a woman—Karen Crowder Tilda Swinton , the in-house attorney for the chemical company, whose desperate damage-control effort swiftly crosses the boundary into criminal activity and even murder. These scenes are counterpoised to a very different glimpse of Karen, who at the height of the crisis is shown hunched over in a public bathroom stall, a pool of sweat visibly spreading in her armpit.
It is no surprise that this legacy should have caught the attention of Margaret Atwood, an author long fascinated with body and narrative as conjoined, mutually influential objects of social prescription.
Gerald warns Kat that her rebelliousness will someday cost her, and that day indeed arrives: while Kat is recovering from the operation, Gerald informs her that the board has decided to fire her, and that he himself will take over her job.
In the days of convalescence that follow the surgery, however, her sense of constant inner flux continues, and curiosity partly gives way to unease. Inside her something is leaking, or else festering; she can hear it like a dripping tap.
It is while recuperating from the operation that Kat is swiftly deprived of her accomplishments: she does not die in excruciating pain like Mrs. Sinclair, but her medical crisis is nonetheless followed by a kind of social and professional death. Her name was Cheryl.
Her hair looked as if she still used big rollers and embalm-your-hairdo spray; her mind was room-by-room Laura Ashley wallpaper: tiny, unopened pastel buds arranged in straight rows. The appearance of the cyst turns Kat into the object of a male gaze that, while it lacks the vehemence of a Belford or a Rochester, is nonetheless alarmed and somewhat repulsed by what it sees. Whereas Cheryl, the lawful wife, has given birth to a child, Kat has experienced the pseudo-birth of a pseudo-baby, a multi-tissue cyst known in medical terminology as a teratoma from the Greek teras , or monster.
She wants to be in that silver frame. She wants the child. Inside the box, nestled cheek-to-cheek with delicate chocolate truffles, is the tumor named Hairball, wrapped in tissue paper and sporting a mauve bow.
A female character could rebel against social strictures without then having to throw herself in front of a train like Anna Karenina; she could think the unthinkable and say the unsayable; she could flout authority. Such activities and emotions, however, were—according to the new moral thermometer of the times—not really bad at all; they were good, and the women who did them were praiseworthy.
With Gerald, too, her dominion proves tenuous and fleeting, and her casual dismissal as both his employee and his lover suggests a good reason for her habitual combative manner and for the anger that fuels her final, vengeful act. There will be pain. But what of the grotesque body, then? What does change—potentially, at least—is the particular kind of disorder it comes to symbolize.
Success in the capitalist business world requires the possession or production of a sellable commodity, and that commodity is the body itself. This self-iconization, the story insists, has been crucial to both her professional climb and her sexual conquests. Kat, the creator and purveyor of glossy, two-dimensional bodies, finds her carefully managed existence suddenly disrupted by what transpires in the murky depths of her own body.
The fact that both women and the texts they produce can now more freely articulate sexual desire does not mean that the body has been fully liberated from its old limitations, either in life or in narrative convention. Significantly, the key moment in the text involves a prolonged act of looking ; the horrified perspective—male, but more recently also female—through which the grotesque body has traditionally been scrutinized and narrativized is here replaced by the puzzled, ruminative gaze of a woman who has come to a fork in the road.
This moment of observation allows the story to offer another possible way of reading of the grotesque—one that, in a more Bakhtinian vein, turns the cyst into the symbol and catalyst of a rebellion targeting not the old forms of oppression, but rather the newer, less visible and therefore more insidious ones.
No, said the doctor. Some people thought this kind of tumour was present in seedling form from birth, or before it. What they really were was unknown. They had many kinds of tissue, though.
Even brain tissue. Though of course all of these tissues lack structure. Still, sitting here on the rug looking in at it, she pictures it as a child. It has come out of her, after all. It is flesh of her flesh. Hairball speaks to her, without words. It is irreducible, it has the texture of reality, it is not an image. This is new knowledge, dark and precious and necessary.
It cuts. Having already intimated how this body might be read within the context of a patriarchal narrative as well as pointed to its role within the story told by a beleaguered career woman, Atwood now opens up two other possibilities. Both tie the bodily dynamics that Hairball represents to a necessary upheaval, a disorder that may be productive, liberating, rather than destructive.
One possibility, of course, is that Hairball represents the child that Kat cannot have with Gerald. Flesh and blood. If Kat is not too alarmed by the rawness of this biological image, if she is not too quick to identify it with danger and discipline it into a culturally acceptable shape including, perhaps, that of a baby , then perhaps it offers the possibility of a new beginning.
Having dispatched Hairball on its mission, Kat herself walks off into the snow another echo of Shelley? The story thus foregrounds, in highly concrete form, the act of outrageous display itself as a catalyst for discovery and, potentially, for self-liberation.
The Hairball on the Mantelpiece
These were two of the adventures of my professional life. The first—killing the Angel in the House—I solved. She died. But the second, telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet.
Margaret Atwood- ‘Hairball’
Genre: Short Story. This well crafted story concerns a contemporary woman in her thirties who undergoes significant personal losses; in fact, she seems to lose or lack an identity. Over the years, Kat, an "avant garde" fashion photographer, has altered her image, even her name, to suit the situation and the times. She has had two abortions and "learned to say that she didn't want children anyway. The story begins when Kat undergoes surgical removal of a rare and peculiar ovarian tumor containing hair, teeth, bones the clinical term is a dermoid cyst ; Kat dubs it "hairball " and stores it in formaldehyde on her mantelpiece. We learn that Kat's relationship with her married lover is going sour, that he will replace her as creative director at work.
Margaret Atwood and Hairball
I had to do this presentation on Margaret Atwood, and I chose to concentrate on her portrayal of female characters, by looking at her short story, Hairball. Hope this comes in handy for someone! This poem represents everything that Atwood writes about. The photo, rather than revealing the woman, conceals her.