Margaret Atwood’s Portrayal of an Artist in Lady Oracle
[Lady Oracle as Kunstlerroman]
All modes of inquiry correlate with each other due to their tendency to coalesce in their emphasis on issues that tackle autonomy, justice, and politics. The differences of literary theories, for example, only spring from their construal of the relationship between the exercise of power and the text. Structuralism views the relation in terms of the formal elements in a linguistic system. Marxism assesses the relationship in terms of the role of such relations in the existence of social structures. The same method is used by Psychoanalysis, with the emphasis on the conscious and unconscious mind. Deconstruction on the other hand, perceives the texts’ role in destabilizing oppositional modes of power. However, despite these differences in discursive such differences do not overshadow the fact that these theories give emphasis on their analysis of the political and institutional structures within society.
Literature as a repository of human experience has always been influenced by politics. Exercise of power within society is associated with and dependent on the mass production of certain kinds of literature, which allows the cultural qualification of ideas. The relation between literature and politics can also be seen in literary theory’s assessment of the formation of consciousness and unconsciousness which is related to the maintenance and transformation of the predominant modes of power made possible by literary output. It is also dependent upon the ahistorical positioning of the literary text, since this allows the continuous creation of meaning for a particular text. This mode of relationship invokes the aesthetic character of literature.
Literature as a form of discourse enables the perception of aesthetics as a process of communicating while remaking a work. The aesthetic act becomes the incarnation of meaning rather than a demonstration of truth. This is possible since in the process of reading a text, the subject [which can be both the reader and the author] produces another text which is the same as the earlier text yet entirely different from it. Perceived within the dialogic process, the interconnectedness of completion and fragmentation can be understood by recognizing that it is in fact the fragmentation of the text which allows the completion of the text itself. Within this perspective, the aesthetic act becomes political through the social interaction necessitated by the creation and continual recreation of an artistic work. Literature, in this sense, becomes the locus of a condensed and social evaluation since intersubjectivity precedes subjectivity through the production and repression of meaning of a text. In this scheme, the text is allowed the character of fluidity. No permanent theoretical stipulation and ethical meaning can be attached to it since to do so is tantamount to denying the ahistorical character of the text. This character is invoked since in the end when one considers a text, what is given importance is not necessarily the historical reading of the text but the current reading made available by the predominant literary theories and ethical standpoints. An example of this is evident in Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle.
Lady Oracle presents a feminist author’s perspective regarding the difficulties experienced by a female writer within a literary history that has been dominated and defined by male-centered discourse. Such a perspective is apparent as the novel presents the education and growth of Joan Delacourt Foster, a young artist who chooses to contradict and subvert the conventions of her time. The significance of the aforementioned text may thereby be derived from the following factors: (1) The text may be seen as presenting Margaret Atwood’s account of her own experience as a female writer who chooses to contradict and subvert the literary conventions of her time and (2) The text may be seen as presenting Margaret Atwood’s conception of the literary art in itself. It is important to note that both of the aforementioned conceptions regarding the significance of Atwood’s Lady Oracle are related to her conception of Lady Oracle as a kunstlerroman or an artist novel.
In Lady Oracle, Joan stands as an entity separated from the public sphere as a result of her physical condition. This condition was recognized by Joan herself as she states, “I was fifteen, and I’d reached my maximum growth: I was five feet eight and I weighed two hundred and forty-five, give or take a few pound” (Atwood 70). Joan took her physical condition as a symbol of her existence as well as a symbol of her life. Within the text she states, “Sometimes I was afraid I wasn’t really there…so I ate so I can be solid, solid as a stone (Atwood 74). She perceives her body as a means of anchoring her existence within reality. Such an existence was one characterized by defiance as Joan chose to continually consume food despite her obesity in order to prove that it is possible for a woman to exist despite her deviance from society’s stereotypical conception of a woman.
Within this context, Joan’s growth from childhood to adulthood involves a process of defying societal conventions. Such conventions however continued to dominate her life as can be seen in the later part of the text. As she receives fame during her adulthood as a writer of Gothic fiction and poetry, Joan realizes that her narratives contradict her conception of her identity as the individuals she presents within these texts are the individuals whom she has chosen to shun during her life. In her realization of the unity between her identity and her mother’s identity, she recognizes that both these identities have “been the lady in the boat, the death barge, the tragic lady with flowing hair and stricken eyes, the lady in the tower…(who) couldn’t stand the view from her window (since) life was her curse” (Atwood 330). The curse of life may be seen as the curse of the female individual whose identity has been continuously constructed in line with the views of patriarchal society.
For Joan , the space society demarcates for her is so restricting she cannot help but overflow as she continues to gain weight. This state, however continues even after she looses weight. She states, “The outline of my former body still surrounded me, like a mist, like a phantom moon” (Atwood 214). Even as she attains the ‘suitable’ weight, she continues to be haunted by her past. She states, “I have to get rid of it entirely and construct a different one for myself, a more agreeable one” (Atwood 141). The creation of ‘a more agreeable’ self involved the creation of different identities for Joan. These identities aimed to appease her desire for her conformity to an ideal female self. As she attempts to create herself by adhering to societal norms of the ideal female identity, Joan is visited throughout the novel by a series of ‘other’ female bodies through the figure of her mother and the circus Fat Lady. Sanchez-Grant states that these clearly show Joan’s desire to conform to female societal roles (83).
Although the text ends with Joan’s recreation of her identity that coincides with her newfound conception of herself, it is important to note such a process was only enabled through Joan’s conception of her existence as something based upon both the material and immaterial facets of reality. By continually using her physical form as a shield that subverts societal stereotypes of the female figure, Joan was able to create a female identity that subverts the patriarchal view of the female body however by claiming that she stands as ‘an escape artist’, she reaffirms that such a subversion continues is only enabled through the refusal to adhere to one particular conception of the self.
It is in line with Joan’s adaptation of different identities [or different conceptions of herself] within the text that one may consider the Lady Oracle as an ‘artist novel’ [as a novel belonging to the kunstlerroman genre] since artistic growth within the text is portrayed not as the linear development which involves an artist’s emotional and intellectual growth from childhood to adulthood but as a non-linear development which involves the artist’s adaptation of an identity which is free from societal stereotypes (Cooke 20). McWilliams (2006) states, “the novel offers a very different ‘portrait of the artist’ to the serious treatment of the artist’s coming of age usually associated with the kunstlerroman genre” (1). Within Lady Oracle, Joan’s coming of age was characterized by her ability to discern that the selves that she has created stand both as an answer to and as a critique to society’s conception of female identity. Sanzchez-Grant (2008) assents to this as she argues that Atwood’s Lady Oracle “disassembles the patriarchal concept of femininity and offers a new account of the female body. By re-appropriating the body, Atwood is able to articulate women’s anxieties over her oppressive cultural experiences as well as confront that oppression” (91).
Within this context, Atwood’s aforementioned text may also be seen as presenting her view regarding her experience as a female writer within a male-centered literary field since she places emphasis on the necessity to transcend the paradigmatic views regarding not only the conception of a particular genre but also regarding the construction of a literary text. By defying the usual construal of artistic development in Lady Oracle, Atwood shows the possibility of creating a new discourse that refuses to adhere to the rigid boundaries set by the literary canon itself. As Atwood states herself in Lady Oracle, “Words (are) not the prelude to war but the war itself” (57).
Writing, in this sense, may be perceived as a possible tool for the discovery and recovery of the self. Such a conception of writing allows literature to be seen as a privileged place for the formation of a new paradigm for perceiving reality. This is possible since within this scheme, texts are perceived as dramatizing and representing experiences. This allows the production of various meanings, which can be attached to the text. The reader can either identify or disassociate himself with the text. Through his reading, he can impose an identity on himself by associating with the character or he can disassociate himself with the text by refusing to recognize the character.
Atwood, Margaret. Lady Oracle. Np: Virago, 2001.
Cooke, Nathalie. “Lions, Tigers, and Pussycats: Margaret Atwood (Auto-) Biographically.” Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Ed. Reingard Nischik. New York: Camden House, 2000.
McWilliams, Ellen. “Lady Oracle.” 25 Oct. 2006. The Literary Encyclopedia. 30 Mar 2009 <http://www.litency.com/>.
Sanchez-Grant, Sofia. “The Female Body in Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 9.2 (Mar. 2008): 77-92.