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!
And people, you should seriously read Atwood. She’s a genius!
A look at the female characters in Atwood’s writings, by concentrating on her short story, “Hairball”.
Audio: This is a Photograph of Me poem Audio of This is a Photograph of Me
This poem represents everything that Atwood writes about. There’s the Canada in the gently painted landscape in the first few stanzas, and there’s the woman drowned. The photo, rather than revealing the woman, conceals her. She’s not visible in the photograph as she’s already drowned. This poem is very feminist: the woman being concealed, blurred and drowned by patriarchy. But I want to concentrate only on the last two stanzas:
It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or how small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion.
but if you look long enough
you will see me.
“But if you look long enough/ eventually /you will see me”. These final lines represent the quintessential Atwood heroine: an ordinary woman in a world of frustration and verging on desperation. The woman is usually trapped in a place which she had built for herself, and which is now falling down on her. She isn’t a heroine. Nor is she a revolutionary feminist who’s every action is calculated to be aimed against patriarchy. Rather, she’s a woman subjugated under a man, or men. And yet, she’s feminist. Not in an overt way. It’s not something she herself realizes. But it’s something inside her, which comes out during a moment of desperation. She is Atwood’s heroine. Troubled, broken and trapped, she still manages to triumph.
Atwood has produced a lot of phenomenal female characters, like Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, and the historical Grace Marks in her book, Alias Grace. But the woman I would like to concentrate on is Kat, from the story Hairball, taken from Atwood’s short story collection, Wilderness Tips.
Kat is a woman who loves to be extremely shocking. She is the managing editor of a magazine called The Razor’s Edge, which features articles on sex toys, edible condoms etc.; the point being to be as confrontational as possible. Kat prides herself on her steel nature and her cynicism. She loves that people are shocked by what she does and what she writes. She has no earnestness and she scorns sincerity. She likes to believe that she’s on the cutting edge. Since she’s an American who moved to England, she feels that no class barrier limits her. She was in a class of her own. This image, however, was something that she took meticulous care to develop. Reading an excerpt from the story:
“…During her childhood she was a romanticized Katherine, dressed by her misty-eyed fussy mother in dresses that looked like ruffled pillow-cases. By high school she’d shed the frills and emerged as a bouncy, round-faced Kathy, with gleaming freshly washed hair and enviable teeth, eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad. At university she was Kath, blunt and no-bullshit in her Take-Back-the-Night jeans and checked shirt and her bricklayer-style striped-denim peaked hat. When she ran away to England, she sliced herself down to Kat. It was economical, street-feline, and pointed as a nail. It was also unusual… “
Kat believes that it’s her name which got her the job. As she moved up the ladder, she altered herself even more:
“…She’d shaved off most of her hair, worked on the drop-dead stare, perfected a certain turn of the neck that conveyed an aloof inner authority. What you had to make them believe was that you knew something they didn’t know yet. What you also had to make them believe was that they too could know this thing, this thing that would give them eminence and power and sexual allure, that would attract envy to them – but for a price. The price of the magazine…”
However, the story opens with an event which cannot be given a cynical twist, even by Kat. She has to get an ovarian cyst, the size of a coconut, removed. When it’s taken out of her, she asks the doctor whether she can take it home. It looks like a huge hairball, and has fully formed teeth stuck to it. She puts it in a jar of formaldehyde and places it above her mantel. She likes the thought that it will shock people. She refuses to believe that she herself is shocked; that her body produced such a monstrosity. She talks to the hairball, confides in it and stares at it, hypnotized. Meanwhile, she continues on as though nothing has changed; as though she has not been altered in some way by this surgery; as though she is not now missing something.
Her boyfriend is someone whose name is never revealed. She works under him. She calls him Ger. She likes to believe that she built Ger up, and shaped him up into the man he is now. With the kind of control she feels she exerts over her relationship, it’s strange when the reader realizes that Ger is already married and Kat is just the other woman in his life. Ger is absolutely disgusted by the hairball, but Kat doesn’t remove it.
The hairball slowly begins to develop a rage within Kat. She realizes how frustrated she actually is, and remembers how she isn’t always as sharp and cutting as a razor:
“…She was too smart, of course. The English men were very competitive; they liked to win. Several times it hurt. Twice she had abortions, because the men in question were not up for the alternative. She learned to say that she didn’t want children anyway, that if she longed for a rug-rat she would buy a gerbil. Her life began to seem long. Her adrenaline was running out. Soon she would be thirty, and all she could see ahead was more of the same.…”
Kat’s “rage” up to the point of the story was a pose, a cynical “world-weary” pose – in a rage at propriety, bourgeois values, her own country and its pretensions. But once that hairball comes out – Kat starts to discover what real rage is.
When her superiors decide to let Ger replace her in her job, Kat is shocked. She can’t believe that the person she had built up was now replacing her. Ger obviously doesn’t seem to mind and tells her he’ll come over some other night, as his wife is throwing a party that night. The story ends in typical Atwood style: Kat ends up not totally victorious, but liberated in a sense. She gift wraps the hairball and sends it to Ger and his wife. She realizes how subordinate she was to Ger all along, and now, she asserts her independence.
The reason I chose to talk about Hairball is because it is a very Atwood story. What I mean is, only Atwood could have written a story which is so absurd yet sensible, simple yet complicated, with such anger and such humour. I personally love Atwood, and if you haven’t read her work, you’re missing out on a lot. This is more like an advertisement to convince all of you to start reading Atwood, and in the process, relate, laugh at, pity and fall in love with her heroines.