- Reviewed by
Margaret Atwood’s fiction has tended to attract a fairly conventional critical approach, and this book by Fiona Tolan is no exception. As a writer of enormous range, whose work spans over four decades, Atwood presents a particular challenge for those who would hazard generalizations about her writing. The temptation is to run the work through various categories, the theories that have influenced her: identity politics, the body, the Gothic, the environment, Canada, the post-colonial, science fiction, historiography—and, of course, feminism. Anyone using feminism as a category in which to examine Atwood’s novels today runs into certain difficulties. First, there is Atwood’s repeated refusal of the label for her work. This refusal, however, should not deter us in a reader’s world, and Tolan is right to insist that feminist discourse is not exclusive but “by its very nature . . . permeable and diffusive” (3). More serious, however, is the fact that the category has come to seem increasingly inadequate, even obsolete in relation to Atwood’s work, particularly in the last couple of decades.
Atwood does of course deal centrally with gender issues, and there is no doubt that in such novels of the 1960s–1980s as The Edible Woman, Surfacing, Lady Oracle, Bodily Harm, and The Handmaid’s Tale feminist debates provide an important context. Tolan summarizes in detail the impact of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, socio-psychologcal object-relations theory (Nancy Chodorow, Dorothy Dinnerstein), French feminism (Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray), ecofeminism (Mary Daly), femininity as a masquerade (Joan Riviere), and the debates between feminism [End Page 935] and postmodernism, among others. The parallels are convincingly drawn, if rather familiar. Some of the most illuminating references are in fact to works that lie outside a strictly feminist context—for example Charles Taylor’s communitarian theory and the politics of recognition or Edward Wilson on sociobiology.
Where the feminist context begins to distract from, rather than enhance, the experience of reading Atwood’s writing is in the novels from Cat’s Eye (1988) onward: the decade and a half of dazzling creativity that produced (among other writings) The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake. Here Atwood’s fiction has taken on a density that resists even more firmly the categorizing approach. A case is made for these novels as a response to post-feminism, a term that implies both continuity and resistance in relation to the second-wave feminism of the seventies and eighties. It is true that these recent novels continue to focus on women’s lives and the female viewpoint (although Oryx and Crake is an important exception). But to read them through a primarily feminist lens is to skew the emphasis, leaving their depths unplumbed. As a consequence, the last four chapters of Tolan’s book make disappointing reading. What preoccupies Atwood in all her recent novels, Tolan argues, is “the debate between an essentialist belief in a knowable and unified self, and a more postmodern concept of an inessential self comprised entirely of influences and experiences” (223). A term used a great deal by second-wave feminists, particularly in relation to the Anglophone critique of écriture féminine, “essentialism” has an anachronistic ring to it within the context of contemporary thought given the refusal by most recent scientists and social theorists (including feminists engaging with these debates, such as Donna Haraway) of the very distinction between nature and culture. Too often, this unhelpful category leaves the argument stranded, forced into repeating issues that are only indirectly relevant. The chapter on Alias Grace, for example, dedicates a long section to women and “the discourse of madness,” a topic that was prominent in 1970s feminism, even though Tolan concludes (correctly) that the spirit of Atwood’s novel “post-dates” these debates (241). When an attempt is made to examine another dimension of the psychoanalytic relationship between Grace Marks and Simon Jordan, Tolan falls back into a second-wave mistrust of what she calls the “traditional view of psychoanalysis,” where “the doctor labours...