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Critical Essay by J. Brooks Bouson
SOURCE: "Comic Storytelling as Escape and Narcissistic Self-Expression in Atwood's Lady Oracle," in his The Empathic Reader: A Study of the Narcissistic Character and the Drama of the Self, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, pp. 154-168.
In the following excerpt, Bouson explores the psychology of the protagonist in Lady Oracle.
Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle has tantalized, amused, and baffled critics who are fascinated with its duplicitous, protean narrator-heroine. "The task of fitting the pieces of the puzzle together, the puzzle of Joan Foster," writes one critic, "is left to the reader." As Joan narrates the story of her life and exposes her narcissistic anxieties, hurts, and rage, she is undeniably funny. But even while we laugh at her comic descriptions of her mother-dominated childhood, her childhood obesity, her recurring fat lady fantasies, and her troubled relationships with men, we are aware that her comedic voice "covers a prolonged scream of pain." Like the opera singer, Joan wants to "stand up there in front of everyone and shriek as loud" as possible "about hatred and love and rage and despair," to "scream at the top" of her lungs "and have it come out music." The kind of storyteller we've encountered before, Joan wants to seduce her listeners, compel their attention. Creating a character who amuses and disarms, keeping reader attention riveted on Joan, Atwood enjoins us to become accomplices, an appreciative audience for Joan's secret but nevertheless exhibitionistic exploits. Urging us into a pact with her storyteller-heroine, Atwood takes us into a comic version of a world we've come to know well … the solipsistic, hall-of-mirrors world of the narcissistic character.
A text replete with messages and clues for the psychoanalytic inquirer, Lady Oracle focuses attention on a troubled mother-daughter relationship. The preestablished plot Joan acts out finds its source in her mother-controlled and tormented childhood, a world in which the "huge but ill-defined figure" of her mother blocks "the foreground" while her father is essentially an "absence." An autobiographer, Joan tells the story of her childhood in an attempt to understand and thus master her memories of the corrosive emotional hurts of her past and also to verbally retaliate against her mother. Cast in the role of sympathetic listener, the reader is encouraged to take Joan's side in the mother-daughter conflict. Part of the text's agenda is to use comic accusation to expose and undercut the lethal powers of the unempathic, and hence dangerous, mother figure.
Her mother is "the manager, the creator, the agent," and she "the product," says Joan as she reconstructs her childhood relationship with her mother. Motherly "concern" in Joan's childhood is equated with "pain," her mother's anger barely camouflaged by her public pose as the concerned mother. "On her hands, in her hair," these are the metaphors Joan's mother uses to describe her, even though she "seldom" touches her. Unconsciously, her mother conspires to deny Joan's healthy childhood assertiveness and curtail her development of feelings of self-worth and authenticity. She wants Joan to "change into someone else," continually berates and finds fault with her, and always tries to teach her "some lesson or other." When Joan becomes an overweight child, she becomes a "reproach" of her mother, the "embodiment" of her mother's "failure and depression, a huge edgeless cloud of inchoate matter which refused to be shaped into anything" for which her mother "could get a prize." Joan's dreams depict her childhood anxieties about her self-absorbed, non-responsive, and angry mother. In one dream, she envisions herself struggling on a collapsing bridge; as she falls into a ravine, her nearby mother remains oblivious of the fact that "anything unusual" is happening. In another dream, Joan's memory of her mother putting on make-up in front of her three-sided mirror surfaces as a nightmare in which her mother metamorphoses into a three-headed monster and only Joan is aware of her "secret" monstrousness. And in her most terrifying dream, Joan, overhearing voices talking about her and realizing that "something very bad" is about to happen, feels utterly "helpless." The persecutory fears that Joan fictionalizes in her Gothic novels and that plague her as an adult in her dreams and real life—like her Gothic heroines, she feels vulnerable, exposed, haunted and hunted down by malevolent, spectral pursuers—find their source in her crippling childhood encounters with her mother. With her childhood contemporaries, her companion Brownies who take special delight in persecuting her since she makes such a good victim and cries so readily, she repeats her troubled relationship with her mother. Later, when she meets Marlene, one of her childhood tormentors, these painful memories erupt. "Like a virus meeting an exhausted throat, my dormant past burst into rank life…. I was trapped again in the nightmare of my childhood, where I ran eternally after the others, the oblivious or scornful ones, hands outstretched, begging for a word of praise." What Joan attempts to elicit from others is the confirming attention she never received in childhood. Like Atwood, who plays the "good mother" to Joan by making her the focal point of attention, the reader is encouraged to enact the "good mother" role by becoming an appreciative audience for Joan's comic misadventures. Divulging to us her character's needs and hurts, positioning us as confidants, Atwood invites our active listening and empathic interest.
Joan's early pursuit of audience recognition is dramatized in her childhood experiences as an overweight, would-be ballet dancer. Exposing herself to control her fear of exposure, laughing at herself to disarm those who would laugh at her, Joan describes her childhood fascination with ballet dancers. "I idealized ballet dancers …," she recalls, "and I used to press my short piggy nose up against jewelry store windows and goggle at the china music-box figurines of shiny ladies in brittle pink skirts, with roses on their hard ceramic heads, and imagine myself leaping through the air … my hair full of rhinestones and glittering like hope." Enrolled in Miss Flegg's dancing school, Joan eagerly awaits the recital performance of the "Butterfly Frolic," which is her "favorite" dance and which features her favorite costume: a short pink skirt, a head-piece with insect antennae, and a pair of cellophane wings. In her outfit, as she later reconstructs this incident, she looks "grotesque": "with my jiggly thighs and the bulges of fat where breasts would later be and my plump upper arms and floppy waist, I must have looked obscene, senile almost, indecent…." Provoked to laugh as Joan makes wisecrack after wisecrack about her weight, Atwood forces us to confront, even as we laugh at Joan's jokes about her obesity, our own—and the text's—latent cruelty.
After her embarrassed mother betrays her to Miss Flegg, Joan is given a new role in the dance: that of a mothball. Joan's "humiliation [is] disguised as a privilege," for Miss Flegg tells her it is a special part that she has been selected to dance. "There were no steps to my dance, as I hadn't been taught any, so I made it up as I went along…. I threw myself into the part, it was a dance of rage and destruction, tears rolled down my cheeks behind the fur, the butterflies would die…. 'This isn't me,' I kept saying to myself, 'they're making me do it'; yet even though I was concealed in the teddy-bear suit … I felt naked and exposed, as if this ridiculous dance was the truth about me and everyone could see it." Though thwarted in her desire to have wings, she does provoke both laughter and vigorous applause. Left alone, center stage, she is a special person, a grotesque clown.
At the time, she is filled with "rage, helplessness and [a] sense of betrayal," but she gradually comes to view this episode as "preposterous," most particularly when she thinks about telling others about it. "Instead of denouncing my mother's injustice, they would probably laugh at me. It's hard to feel undiluted sympathy for an overweight seven-year-old stuffed into a mothball suit and forced to dance; the image is simply too ludicrous." While we are invited to laugh at this episode, we also are meant to feel sorry for Joan and disapprove of her mother's unempathic behavior. As one critic observes, "Joan swings back and forth between self-pity and self-mockery. She thinks of herself as a victim and the 'pity the unwanted child' tone is very strong, but she also sees and shows herself to be ridiculous as well as pathetic." Despite Joan's comic dismissal, this incident causes a deep narcissistic wound. It later resurfaces in her recurring fat lady fantasy and gives birth to her identity as the escape artist who fears exposure and thus compulsively assumes a series of identities, each identity becoming a new trap. And here we find the precursor of the writer who achieves narcissistic revenge via her art and the comedian who later learns how to disarmingly throw the cloak of humor over her rage to win the approval of others. This also points to one of the defensive strategies of the narrative: the use of humor to partially contain and diffuse the explosive anger that threatens to erupt from just beneath the surface of the text. "All that screaming with your mouth closed," Joan says, her depiction of an Italian fotoromanzo an apt depiction of her own inner life.
As Joan battles her hostile and intrusive mother during adolescence, she transforms herself into a grotesque monster. Insistently, the text draws attention to Joan's defective body. A physical statement, Joan's obesity is a visible signifier of her thwarted and angry grandiosity, her inner defectiveness and hollowness, and her introjection of her mother's monstrousness. "Eat, eat, that's all you ever do," Joan recalls her mother saying. "You're disgusting, you really are, if I were you I'd be ashamed to show my face outside the house." Using eating as a weapon, Joan eats "steadily, doggedly, stubbornly." "The war between myself and my mother was on in earnest; the disputed territory was my body," as she later analyzes it. "I swelled visibly, relentlessly, before her very eyes, I rose like dough, my body advanced inch by inch towards her across the dining-room table, in this at least I was undefeated." Determined not to be "diminished, neutralized" by the nondescript clothes her mother wants her to wear, she chooses outfits of "a peculiar and offensive hideousness, violently colored, horizontally striped." Her confidence undercut when she recognizes that others view her obesity as an "unfortunate handicap," she comes to derive a "morose pleasure" from her weight "only in relation" to her mother. In particular, she enjoys her ability to clutter up her mother's "gracious-hostess act." Putting on her fashion shows "in reverse," she calls attention to herself by "clomping silently but very visibly" through the rooms where her mother sits. "[I]t was a display, I wanted her to see and recognize what little effect her nagging and pleas were having." Eating to "defy" her mother, Joan also eats from "panic": "Sometimes I was afraid I wasn't really there, I was an accident; I'd heard her call me an accident. Did I want to become solid, solid as a stone so she wouldn't be able to get rid of me?" Conflating her memory of herself as a fat ballerina and her fantasy of the fat lady in the freak show, she envisions herself as a fat lady in a pink ballerina costume walking the high wire, proceeding inch by inch across Canada, the initial jeers of the audience transforming into the roar of applause when she triumphantly completes her death-defying feat. Dramatizing Joan's need to exhibit her grandiose self and gain self-confirming attention, this fantasy also depicts her anxieties about her fragile self-stability, which is expressed as the fear of falling.
When Joan, left two thousand dollars by her Aunt Lou on condition that she lose one hundred pounds, goes on a diet, the mother-daughter battle enters a new phase. "Well, it's about time, but it's probably too late," her mother says at first. But when Joan begins to successfully shed her fat, her mother becomes progressively "distraught and uncertain," for as Joan grows thinner and thinner her mother loses control over her. "About the only explanation I could think of for this behavior of hers was that making me thin was her last available project. She'd finished all the houses, there was nothing left for her to do, and she had counted on me to last her forever." After Joan has stripped away most of her protective covering of fat, her mother's "cutting remarks" are finally literalized: she attacks Joan with a knife, this actual infliction of a narcissistic wound concretizing the verbal wounds Joan has suffered for years. Consequently, Joan leaves home, determined to sever her connection with her mother and to discard her past with all its "acute concealed misery."
Discovering that she is the "right shape" but has "the wrong past," she determines "to get rid of it entirely" and create "a different" and "more agreeable one" for herself. Thus she begins her life-long habit of compulsive lying and storytelling, as she invents, first for her lover Paul and later for Arthur and her adoring public, a "more agreeable" personal history. Consciously, she attempts to divest herself of her past. But she remains haunted by it, and she constantly fears exposure. No matter what she achieves, she feels that she is an impostor, a fraud, and that others will uncover her persisting defectiveness. She is also unable to escape her mother's malevolent presence and her own buried rage. When Joan receives a telegram announcing her mother's death, she thinks it might be a trap, her mother's attempt to bring her "back within striking distance." Subsequently, she imagines that she somehow has killed her mother for unconsciously she perceives her angry thoughts as lethal. Strategically "killed off" and banished from the text, the mother figure resurfaces in a potentially more dangerous form. Twice after her mother's death Joan hallucinates what she thinks is her mother's astral body. Married to Arthur, she remains a partial prisoner of her noxious past. "All this time," she recalls, "I carried my mother around my neck like a rotting albatross. I dreamed about her often, my three-headed mother, menacing and cold." When she looks at herself in the mirror, she does not see what others see. Instead, she imagines the "outline" of her "former body" still surrounding her "like a mist, like a phantom moon, like the image of Dumbo the Flying Elephant superimposed on my own. I wanted to forget the past, but it refused to forget me; it waited for sleep, then cornered me." That the narrative seemingly delivers Joan from her mother's noxious presence and from her own grotesque shape only to sabotage the rescue points to a drama which recurs in the text: the thwarted rescue.
In Joan's relationships with men, we find a repetition of this narrative pattern of thwarted rescues. Desiring magic transformations, wishing to escape from her past, Joan imagines that the men in her life are like the romantic figures populating her Gothic novels. When she meets Paul, the Polish count, and listens to his story, she thinks she has met "a liar as compulsive and romantic" as herself. Arthur, at first, seems a "melancholy fighter for almost-lost causes, idealistic and doomed, sort of like Lord Byron." Similarly, the Royal Porcupine has "something Byronic about him." But when the romance wears off and these men become "gray and multidimensional and complicated like everyone else," the inevitable happens: Joan relives her past in her relationships with men.
Her husband, Arthur, for example, is an amalgam of her father's aloofness and her mother's disapproving behavior. Arthur faults Joan for being obtuse and disorganized, is in the habit of giving expositions on her failures, and, like her mother, is "full of plans" for her. Fearing that Arthur will find her unworthy, she protects her fragile self-esteem by keeping secret her childhood obesity and her identity as Louisa K. Delacourt, the writer of costume Gothics. Both Arthur and Paul, her first lover, seem bent on changing her, transforming her into their own likenesses. While Arthur enjoys her defeats in the kitchen—"[m]y failure was a performance and Arthur was the audience. His applause kept me going"—she also comes to feel that no matter what she does Arthur is "bound to despise" her and that she can never be what he wants.
What Joan seeks from the men in her life is the mirroring attention she never got from her mother. "I'd polished them with my love," as she puts it, "and expected them to shine, brightly enough to return my own reflection, enhanced and sparkling." But the men she loves are also objects of fear. She realizes that all the men she has been involved with have had "two selves": her father, a doctor-savior and wartime killer; the man in the tweed coat, her childhood rescuer but also possibly the daffodil man, a pervert; Paul, an author of innocuous nurse novels and a man she suspects of having a secret sinister life; the Royal Porcupine, her fantasy lover and feared "homicidal maniac"; and Arthur, her loving husband and suspected madman, possibly the unknown tormentor sending her death threats. She splits men into dual identities: the apparently good man is a lurking menace, a hidden pervert, a secret killer. In the text's code, men are an embodiment of Joan's split good/bad mother and her own hidden energies and killing rage. What Arthur doesn't know about her, she tells us, is that behind her "compassionate smile" is "a set of tightly clenched teeth, and behind that a legion of voices, crying, What about me? What about my own pain? When is it my turn? But I'd learned to stifle these voices, to be calm and receptive."
Perpetually trapped, Joan perpetually attempts to escape as she assumes a series of identities and becomes a writer of Gothic novels. "Escape literature," Paul tells Joan, "should be an escape for the writer as well as the reader." While Joan uses her writing to escape her daily life, she also persistently dramatizes in her work her amorphous anxieties, her conflicted selfhood, and her need for self-rescue. For while her heroine is perpetually "in peril" and "on the run," she is also, of course, always rescued. In her work-in-progress, Stalked By Love, Joan fictionalizes her contrasting selves. Charlotte represents her socially compliant, conventional female self, the role that she assumes with Paul and Arthur, while the possessive, angry, powerful Felicia embodies her camouflaged grandiosity. Publicly, Joan plays the role of Arthur's self-effacing, inept, always-apologizing wife; in secret, she becomes Louisa Delacourt, writer of Gothic novels. As time passes, Joan's desire for public acknowledgment grows. But she also fears that if she brings the two parts of her life together there will be "an explosion." And in a sense there is.
In an episode designed to compel reader attention and provoke the critic's speculative gaze, Atwood describes Joan's discovery of her own "lethal energies" when she experiments with automatic writing. Sitting in the dark in front of her triple mirror and staring at a candle, Joan, in a symbolic act of narcissistic introversion, imagines herself journeying into the world of the mirror. "There was the sense of going along a narrow passage that led downward," she recalls, "the certainty that if I could only turn the next corner or the next—for these journeys became longer—I would find the thing, the truth or word or person that was mine, that was waiting for me." On the trail of an elusive stranger, she discovers, in the subterranean world of the unconscious, a woman unlike anybody she's "ever imagined," a woman who, she feels, has "nothing to do" with her. "[S]he lived under the earth somewhere, or inside something, a cave or a huge building…. She was enormously powerful, almost like a goddess, but it was an unhappy power":
She sits on the iron throne
She is one and three
The dark lady the redgold lady
the blank lady oracle
of blood, she who must be
Figured as the mother-goddess Demeter, Lady Oracle—who is potent and blank—is a composite of the internalized mother and Joan's grandiose, empty self. It is the Lady Oracle in Joan that compels her to endlessly construct herself, to create a series of fictional lives for herself, each new creation ultimately becoming a new trap, a new replication of her past. "There was always," she remarks, "that shadowy twin, thin when I was fat, fat when I was thin, myself in silvery negative, with dark teeth and shining white pupils glowing in the black sunlight of that other world."
When Joan publishes her Lady Oracle poems and consequently becomes a cult figure, she achieves the recognition she has always craved. But this only serves to deepen the cracks in her fractured self. Again the narrative pattern of the thwarted rescue is repeated. Joan's celebrity self, which takes on a deadly energy of its own, seems alien. "[I]t was as if someone with my name were out there in the real world, impersonating me … doing things for which I had to take the consequences: my dark twin, my fun-house-mirror reflection. She was taller than I was, more beautiful, more threatening. She wanted to kill me and take my place…." At long last Joan acts out her archaic grandiosity only to feel unreal, that she is "hollow, a hoax, a delusion." In a new variation on her recurrent fat lady fantasy, she expresses her growing recognition of her subjective emptiness. Fantasying the fat lady floating up like a helium balloon, she realizes that the fat lady, despite her large size, is "very light" for she is "hollow." "Why am I doing this?… Who's doing this to me?" Joan asks herself. Unable to "turn off" her "out-of-control fantasies," she is forced to "watch them through to the end." Although we find Joan's apparent lack of control unsettling, we also sense that as a storyteller she is perpetually playing up to her audience, embroidering her preposterous fantasies. "As the teller of a humorous tale," writes Sybil Vincent, "Joan gains a sense of power. She deliberately manipulates her audience and experiences a sense of control lacking in her actual life." Situated as appreciative listeners and suspicious critics, we sense that one of the text's errands is to rivet reader attention on Joan and thus, as it were, to gratify her grandiose-exhibitionistic needs.
When all the convoluted plots of Joan's life converge—her current lover, the Royal Porcupine, wants her to marry him; Paul, her former lover, traces her and wants her back; a blackmailer hounds her; she imagines that Arthur is the persecutor sending her death threats—she determines to escape her life which has become "a snarl, a rat's nest of dangling threads and loose ends." Accordingly, she fakes her death by drowning and lives, incognito she thinks, in Italy. In a symbolic gesture, she buries her clothes, attempting to shed her past identity. But what she can never escape is her inner sense of defectiveness. In one of her more lurid fantasies, she imagines her buried clothes growing a body, which shapes itself into "a creature composed of all the flesh that used to be mine and which must have gone somewhere." Transforming into a featureless monstrous form, it engulfs her. "It was the Fat Lady. She rose into the air and descended on me…. For a moment she hovered around me like ectoplasm, like a gelatin shell, my ghost, my angel; then she settled and I was absorbed into her. Within my former body, I gasped for air. Disguised, concealed…. Obliterated." When Joan suspects that Mr. Vitroni may be in league with her secret pursuers, she fantasies herself spending the rest of her life "in a cage, as a fat whore, a captive Earth Mother for whom somebody else collected the admission tickets." As her narcissistic anxieties become more and more ungovernable, not only do her Gothic fantasies intrude into her real life, her real life invades her art: Felicia metamorphoses into the bloated, drowned fat lady and is rejected by her husband, Redmond-Arthur.
As the narrative progresses and Atwood carries us deeper and deeper into Joan's fun-house, hall-of-mirrors world, a kind of infinite regression occurs as fantasy and reality coalesce and we gradually come to the realization that Joan's descriptions of others—those in her life and her art—are autorepresentational. Joan's final and terrifying dream encounter with the "dark vacuum" of her mother forces her to recognize that her mother is her own reflection. "She'd never really let go of me because I had never let her go. It had been she standing behind me in the mirror, she was the one who was waiting around each turn, her voice whispered the words…. [S]he had been my reflection too long." In her Gothic novel, Stalked by Love, Joan's stand-in, Felicia, is compulsively drawn into the labyrinth's "central plot." At the psychocenter of the novel, the "central plot" of the maze depicted in the inset Gothic text provides interpretive clues to the narrative plot of the text we are reading. For at the maze's center, Joan-Felicia encounters her mirror selves. There she finds the ubiquitous fat lady, her defective self; there she also finds an embodiment of her identity as Louisa Delacourt, the middle-aged writer of Gothic novels and her dual red-haired, green-eyed self: Joan, the self-effacing wife and Joan the powerful poet cult figure. And there behind a closed door which she imagines is her pathway to freedom, her escape from the trap of self-entanglement, she discovers yet another alter-ego, fictional self, Redmond, who transforms sequentially into the men in her life—her father, Paul, the Royal Porcupine, Arthur—and then into a death's skull. In the specular world of the maze, Joan encounters, recursively, images of self. As Redmond reaches out to grab her, she experiences, once again, the smothering, self-fragmenting dominance of her childhood mother who unconsciously sought to obliterate Joan's fledgling self. Twice before—first during her Lady Oracle experiments with automatic writing and then in a terrifying nightmare in which she seemed about to be sucked into the "vortex" of her mother—Joan approached this world of suffocating darkness, the self-annihilating world of the engulfing, destructive mother. Joan's faked drowning, in effect, is stage managed by her dead but potent mother, who remains a menacing presence in Joan's psyche. But Joan's faked death is faked. She is the escape artist who uses deception to appease her lethal, interiorized mother-self. Her faked suicide is a signifier of her desire to live, to rescue and repair her self.
To the Italian village women, the resurrected Joan becomes an object of fear. Joan imagines that they see her as a kind of science fiction creature, "[a] female monster, larger than life … striding down the hill, her hair standing on end with electrical force, volts of malevolent energy shooting from her fingers…." The monster of her own narcissistic ire possesses her like an alien presence. In her anger, she resembles her mother. No wonder she is bent on escape, on comic diffusion of her deadly rage. In a comic denouement, Joan, fearing that her murderous pursuer is at the door, exposes her wrath when she attacks a reporter who has come to interview her. "I've begun to feel," she comments, "he's the only person who knows anything about me. Maybe because I've never hit anyone else with a bottle, so they never got to see that part of me." As the novel ends, Joan determines to stop writing Gothic novels and to turn, instead, to science fiction, a process she has already begun in her comic, self-parodic depiction of herself as a science fiction monster.
The victim of repeated maternal denials of her self, Joan, as she repeatedly fabricates her life, constructs a series of fictional identities which she disposes of at will. Through this symbolic act of self-creation and self-annihilation, she replicates and replaces her mother and becomes the guarantor of her own identity. The victim of maternal betrayal and control, Joan becomes a dissembler who secretly betrays and controls others. When Joan describes herself as "essentially devious, with a patina of honesty," readers may suspect that they, too, despite their privileged perspective, are being deceived. Again and again, critics have remarked on this. One critic comments that Joan's "absolute honesty in confessing her lies, tricks, and deceptions becomes, in itself, a confidence game which lulls the reader into a misguided trust in Joan's ability to interpret her experiences"; another insists that readers "have more reason to suspect Joan than to believe her"; and yet another says that Atwood's novel leaves readers with "the vague suspicion" that they have been "duped." In their uneasy feeling that they are being gulled and manipulated, critic/readers repeat Joan's childhood and persisting experiences of being deceived and controlled by others, by her mother and the men in her life. Depicted as a confessed liar, Joan escapes reader control and stubbornly resists being made into a stable, literary property.
"Most said soonest mended"—this garbled rendering of one of her Aunt Lou's trite sayings provides a central clue to the impulse behind Joan's autobiographical writing. Admitting, at one point, that she could never say the word "fat" aloud, Joan describes, in a vivid, comic-angry way, her childhood obesity and her persisting fat lady fantasies. Her self-exposure and self-condemnation repeat her mother's cutting remarks and also act as a form of verbal exorcism. Verbally striking back at the mother who verbally abused her as a child, Joan, as a wielder of words, fictively mothers and then obliterates the mother who attempted to annihilate her. In a similar vein, readers of Lady Oracle are urged to collude in the narrational plot to fictively "kill off" Joan's mother, who is represented in the text, in the words of one critic, "not as a woman, but as a fetish or witch-doll." Achieving verbal mastery over the men in her life who attempted to master her, Joan secretly attacks her perceived attackers and becomes a hidden menace to those who menace her. She acts this out in the novel's final scene when she assaults the reporter. When she consequently gives a bunch of wilted flowers to the hospitalized reporter as she plays nurse to him, she unconsciously signals her identification not only with the Mavis Quilp nurse heroines, but also with the daffodil man, an exhibitionist. Her artistry springs, in part, from her covert exhibitionism and rage, both expressed in her genesis as an artist—her mothball dance—and in her Lady Oracle manifestation.
In Lady Oracle autobiographical creation allows Joan to assert her grandiosity, vent her anger, and express her autonomy. Situated as a witness of Joan's conspiracy against others, the reader revels in her disguises and concocted plots and laughs at her descriptions of political activism, spiritualism, the publishing establishment, artistic creation, and faddish artists. Again and again Joan confesses her inability to control her overactive imagination, describing how her fantasies must play themselves out to their appointed ends. Indeed there are undertones of hysteria in her Gothic imaginings—her fears about being pursued in Italy—and in her fat lady fantasies, which progressively grow more and more ludicrous and elaborate. But just as Joan, as a Gothic storyteller, adroitly manipulates her audience, so she, as a comic character, compels our attention. At the outset of the novel, Joan, newly arrived in Italy, imagines all the people she has left behind. She envisions them grouped on the seashore talking to each other and ignoring her. But one thing the reader cannot do is ignore Joan. Atwood prompts us to give Joan the smiling attention that her mother never gave to her and that Arthur, who is subject to periodic depression—he gives off a "gray aura … like a halo in reverse," as she puts it—gives her less and less frequently.
"I longed for happy endings," Joan remarks, "I needed the feeling of release when everything turned out right and I could scatter joy like rice all over my characters and dismiss them into bliss." While some readers of Lady Oracle might share Joan's longing and wish to see a conclusive ending to her story and a final rescue, Atwood frustrates such a desire. "[T]here is no way for the reader to be certain that anything has changed by the end of Joan's narration," observes one critic. At the end "the reader suspects that there are more Joans to come," writes another; the reader watches "in helpless recognition," writes yet another, as Joan assumes a new role at the novel's end. Thwarting our desire for happy endings, for artistic coherence, for neat foreclosures, for final rescues, Atwood creates a plot like her character: one that is entangled and full of loose ends.
Installed as appreciative listeners, collaborators, and accomplices, we revel in Joan's zany exploits, her proliferating mirror encounters and angry-comic rhetoric. Joan's confessions are designed to entertain us, to win our smiling approbation of her thwarted grandiosity. But we are also implicitly led to reflect on our own need to escape through and live vicariously in art and to ask ourselves whether we, like Joan the compulsive creator of plots, are compulsive readers of plots. We are also led to ask ourselves to what extent we read ourselves into a fictional text just as Joan writes herself into her art. Coaxed throughout the novel to see the parallels between Joan's fictional and real worlds, we are also urged to consider to what extent we blur fact and fantasy as we construct the plots and texts of our own lives.
"I might as well face it," Joan admits in the novel's conclusion, "I was an artist, an escape artist…. [T]he real romance of my life was that between Houdini and his ropes and locked trunk; entering the embrace of bondage, slithering out again." So, too, she escapes our grasp as she multiplies before our eyes. As the realistic surface of her autobiographical account dissolves into a richly complex and redundant subjective fantasy, we gain momentary access to the shape-shifting world of the narcissist. Swerving out of our grasp, Joan lures us into a strange world in and beyond the looking glass: the multiple, mirrored, decertainized world of the narcissistic character.
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