- Hairball Speaks: Margaret Atwood and the Narrative Legacy of the Female Grotesque
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.Virginia Woolf, “Professions for Women” (153)1
“On the thirteenth of November, day of unluck, month of the dead, Kat went into the Toronto General Hospital for an operation. It was for an ovarian cyst, a large one.” So begins Margaret Atwood’s short story “Hairball,” whose title mirrors the name that Kat affectionately gives to the growth removed from her body. “She asked for a jar of formaldehyde,” the narrator casually reports at the beginning of the story, “and put the cut-open tumour into it. It was hers, it was benign, it did not deserve to be thrown away. She took it back to her apartment and stuck it on the mantelpiece” (41, 42).
Published in The New Yorker in 1990 and then included in Atwood’s 1991 collection Wilderness Tips, “Hairball” is a remarkable short story that has received little critical attention to date.2 Part of the wave of late twentieth-century women’s writing that sought to reclaim the female body as literary subject matter, the story has a powerful dimension of self-reflexivity, functioning as an ironic, insightful comment on the changing tradition to which it belongs. “Hairball” probes the still-powerful link between women’s unstable, “disgusting” bodies and their violation of social norms—a link that, I argue below, has a specifically narrative history. Atwood is [End Page 51] here reviving a longstanding narrative formula that joins the “grotesque” female body to a story of women’s misconduct to produce a cautionary tale about the dangers of female transgression. Using various components of narrative form, this paradigm of ideologically motivated storytelling “reads” the biological flux of the female body as symbolic of a dangerous disorder and exploits its repugnant effect to legitimize the containment or punishment of the transgressive woman. By interrogating, in a modern context, the narrative connection between women’s “leaky” corporeality and their social defiance, “Hairball” questions the extent to which women’s bodies and conduct, as well as the stories told about them, have truly been liberated from their old constraints. Atwood’s narrative shows, moreover, that while the female grotesque used to be a pivotal component in the derogatory stories that patriarchal culture told about women, it can now also accommodate narratives about women’s own experiences. 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?—is posed in the story not only to the reader, but to Kat herself, and her interpretive dilemma reflects the crossroads reached by contemporary storytelling that takes the female body as its subject.
“In myth woman’s boundaries are pliant, porous, mutable. . . . She swells, she shrinks, she leaks, she is penetrated, she suffers metamorphoses,” writes Anne Carson of the female body’s portrayal in classical antiquity (79). Similar representations of women’s bodies appear in a range of narrative contexts over the centuries: a sixteenth- century manual for soldiers, eighteenth-century epistolary fiction, pornography, dirty jokes, and the Disney version of Cinderella.3 As the name “female grotesque” implies, scholarly discussion of this tradition grows out of a dialogue, at once admiring and critical, with Mikhail Bakhtin’s influential concept of the grotesque body. For Bakhtin, the topsy-turvy rites of carnival are concretely manifested in the bodily aesthetic that he terms “grotesque realism”: the carnival body is “a body in the act of becoming . . . never finished, never completed . . . continually built, created, and build[ing] and creat[ing] another body” (317) This image of the body—which foregrounds orifices and openings, ingress and egress, eating and digestion, birth and death—is defined through and against its antithesis, the statue-like classical ideal, “a strictly completed, finished...