Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lecture 16

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Wk 8 - Thurs (25/9), 3-4 pm lecture: HSB2

Margaret Atwood: Cat's Eye (1988) -

Feminist Discourses

Here are some notes from the guest lecture given by Agnieszka Zabicka:


Some of the quotations used in my lecture:

Atwood on writing:

Writing – the setting down of words – is an ordinary enough activity, and … there’s nothing very mysterious about it. Anyone literate can take implement in hand and make marks on a flat surface. Being a writer, however, seems to be a socially acknowledged role, and one that carries some sort of weight or impressive significance – we hear a capital W on Writer. … Happy the writer who begins simply with the activity itself – the defacement of blank pages of paper – without having first encountered the socially acknowledged role. It is not always a particularly blissful or fortunate role to find yourself saddled with, and it comes with a price; though, like many roles, it can lend a certain kind of power to those who assume the costume.

But the costume varies. Every child is born, not only to specific parents, within a specific language and climate and political situation, but also into a pre-existing matrix of opinions about children – whether they should be seen and not heard, whether sparing the rod spoils them, whether they should be praised every day so they won’t develop negative self-esteem, and so forth. So also it is with writers. No writer emerges from childhood into a pristine environment, free from other people’s biases about writers. All of us bump up against a number of preconceptions about what we are or ought to be like, what constitutes good writing, and what social functions writing fulfils, or ought to fulfil. All of us develop our own ideas about what we are writing in relation to these preconceptions. Whether we attempt to live up to them, rebel against them, or find others using them to judge us, they affect our lives as writers.
(Negotiating with the Dead, pp. 4-5)

Atwood on her early life:

By the time I was born [in 1939], my father was running a tiny forest-insect research station in northern Quebec. Every spring my parents would take off for the North; every autumn, when snow set in, they would return to a city – usually to a different apartment each time. At the age of six months, I was carried into the woods in a packsack, and this landscape became my hometown.

The childhoods of writers are thought to have something to do with their vocation, but when you look at these childhoods they are in fact very different. What they often contain, however, are books and solitude, and my own childhood was right on track. There were no films or theatres in the North, and the radio didn’t work very well. But there were always books. I learned to read early, was an avid reader and read everything I could get my hands on – no one ever told me I couldn’t read a book. My mother liked quietness in children, and a child who is reading is very quiet.

[…] A good many writers have had isolated childhoods; a good many have also had storytellers in their lives. My primal storyteller was my brother; at first I featured only as audience, but soon was allowed to join in. The rule was that you kept going until you ran out of ideas or just wanted a turn at being the listener. Our main saga involved a race of supernatural animals that lived on a distant planet. An ignorant person might have mistaken these for rabbits, but they were ruthless carnivores and could fly through the air. These stories were adventures: war, weapons, enemies and allies, hidden treasure, and daring escapes were the main features.

Stories were for twilight, and when it was raining; the rest of time, life was brisk and practical. There was very little said about moral and social misdemeanours – we didn’t have much opportunity for them. We did get instructions about avoiding lethal stupidity – don’t sent forest fires, don’t fall out of boats, don’t go swimming in thunderstorms – that sort of thing. […] Squeamishness and whining were not encouraged; girls were not expected to do more of it than boys and crying was not viewed with indulgence. Rational debate was smiled upon, as was curiosity about almost everything.

But deep down I was not a rationalist. I was the youngest and the weepiest of the family, frequently set for naps due to fatigue, and thought to be sensitive and even a bit sickly; perhaps this was because I showed an undue interest in sissy stuff like knitting and dresses and stuffed bunnies. My own view of myself was that I was small and innocuous, a marshmallow compared to the others. I was a poor shot with a 22, for instance, and not very good with an ax. It took me a long time to figure out that the youngest in a family of dragons is still a dragon from the point of view of those who find dragons alarming.

[…] When I was eight we moved again [to Toronto] … at that time a stodgy provincial city of seven hundred thousand. I was now faced with real life, in the form of other little girls – their prudery and snobbery, their Byzantine social life based on whispering and vicious gossip, and an inability to pick up earthworms without wriggling all over and making mewing noises like a kitten. I was more familiar with the forthright mindset of boys: the rope burn and the dead-finger trick were familiar to me – but little girls were almost an alien species. I was very curious about them, and remain so.
(Negotiating with the Dead, pp.7-10)

Atwood ‘On Being a Woman Writer’:

There is no critical vocabulary for expressing the concept of good/female. Work by a male writer is often spoken of by critics admiring it as having ‘balls’; ever heard anyone speak admiringly of work by a woman as having ‘tits’
(Quoted in Brutal Choreographies, p.2)

[…] I’m against that kind of determinism that says because you are this, thou shalt be so – you know, because you have a womb, your style has to have a hole in the middle of it.
(Quoted in Brutal Choreographies, p.4)

Atwood on feminism:

Am I a propagandist? No! Am I an observer of society? Yes! And no one who observes society can fail to make observations which are feminist. That is just based on real life commonsense.
(Quoted in Brutal Choreographies, p.3)

Atwood on ‘the in-between time’:

We got a real dish of Freud, so we are told that the early years were very, very important. And then we have a whole cult of romance and sex … so the later period becomes important. The in-between time I think we have forgotten because it’s been indicated to us that it is not important.
(Quoted in Brutal Choreographies, p.159)

Marilyn French on Atwood:

For almost thirty years, I have depended on Margaret Atwood for books that treat women as full human beings. It is still rare for writers, female or male, to depict women as intelligent, active beings with the capacity for moral choice and moral error: they are still often depicted as people whose single choice concerns the disposal of their genital organs. I count on Atwood to be brilliant, perceptive, profound and searching, someone who does not avoid the ‘darker’ sides of female being, the weak or wavering or foolish.
(Quoted in Cooke, Margaret Atwood, p.13)

Atwood on duck and pâté:

There is an epigram tacked to my office bulletin board, pinched from a magazine – ‘Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet duck because you like pâté’. That’s a light enough comment upon the disappointments of encountering the famous, or even the moderately well-known – they are always shorter and older and more ordinary than you expected – but there’s a more sinister way of looking at it as well. In order for the pâté to be made and then eaten, the duck must first be killed. And who is it that does the killing?
(Negotiating with the Dead, p. 35)

Bonus: Margaret Atwood ‘Gertrude Talks Back’:

I always thought it was a mistake, calling you Hamlet. I mean, what kind of name is that for a young boy? It was your father's idea. Nothing would do but that you had to be called after him? Selfish. The other kids at school used to tease the life out of you. The nicknames! And those terrible jokes about pork.

I wanted to call you George.

I am not wringing my hands. I'm drying my nails.

Darling, please stop fidgeting with my mirror. That'll be the third one you've broken.

Yes, I've seen those pictures, thank you very much.

I know your father was handsomer than Claudius. High brow, aquiline nose and so on, looked great in uniform. But handsome isn't everything, especially in a man, and far be it from me to speak ill of the dead, but I think it’s about time I pointed out to you that your dad just wasn't a whole lot of fun. Noble. Sure, I grant you. But Claudius, well, he likes a drink now and then. He appreciates a decent meal. He enjoys a laugh, know what I mean? You don't always have to be tiptoeing around because of some holier-than-thou principle or something.

By the way, darling, I wish you wouldn't call your stepdad the bloat king. He does have a slight weight problem, and it hurts his feelings.

The rank sweat of what? My bed is certainly not enseamed, whatever that might be! A nasty sty, indeed! Not that it's any of your business, but I change those sheets twice a week, which is more than you do, judging from that student slum pigpen in Wittenberg. I'll certainly never visit you there again without prior warning! I see that laundry of yours when you bring it home, and not often enough either, by a long shot! Only when you run out of black socks.

And let me tell you, everyone sweats at a time like that, as you'd find out if you ever gave it a try. A real girlfriend would do you a heap of good. Not like that pasty-faced what's-her-name, all trussed up like a prize turkey in those touch-me-not corsets of hers. If you ask me, there's something off about that girl. Borderline. Any little shock could push her right over the edge.

Go get yourself someone more down-to-earth. Have a nice roll in the hay. Then you can talk to me about nasty sties.

No darling, I am not mad at you. But I must say you're an awful prig sometimes. Just like your Dad. The Flesh, he'd say. You'd think it was dog dirt. You can excuse that in a young person, they are always so intolerant, but in someone his age it was getting, well, very hard to live with and that's the understatement of the year.

Some days I think it would have been better for both of us if you hadn't been an only child. But you realize who you have to thank for that. You have no idea what I used to put up with. And every time I felt like a little, you know, just to warm up my aging bones, it was like I'd suggested murder.

Oh! You think what? You think Claudius murdered your Dad? Well, no wonder you've been so rude to him at the dinner table!

If I'd known that, I could have put you straight in no time flat.

It wasn't Claudius, darling.

It was me.

(Good Bones and Simple Murders. New York: Doubleday, 1994. 16-19)


Some of the web resources I used in preparing this lecture:

Atwood’s home page: Includes poems, photographs, cartoons, bibliography, links and much more.

The Margaret Atwood society webpage: Useful links, news and articles.

Cat's Eye: One of many portals containing material on Cat’s Eye.

Video resources (available for use on site at the Audiovisual Library):

Writers in Conversation: Margaret Atwood with Hermione Lee (VCR) Audiovisual Library LV96-113

The South Bank Show: Interview with Margaret Atwood (VCR) Audiovisual Library LV04-031

Select bibliography of secondary sources:

Atwood, Margaret. Negotiating with the Dead. A Writer on Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.
An imaginative and entertaining discussion of the pleasures and purposes of writing – in Atwood’s own words.

Bouson, J. Brooks. Brutal Choreographies. Oppositional Strategies and Narrative Design in the Novels of Margaret Atwood. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.
A chronological account of Atwood’s novels up to and including Cat’s Eye.

Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood. A Critical Companion. Greenwood and London: Greenwood Press, 2004.
An accessible introduction to Atwood’s life and work.

Howells, Coral Ann. Margaret Atwood. London: Palgrave, 1996
Another thorough discussion of all Atwood novels up to and including Oryx and Crake.

Howells, Coral Ann, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.
A collection of outstanding critical accounts of all major Atwood works.

Osborne, Carol. ‘Constructing the self through memory: Cat’s Eye as a novel of female self-development.’ Frontiers, 1994, available online here (Access date 15 September 2008).
An interesting reading of Cat’s Eye as a female Bildungsroman.

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