Spring 1991, Volume 8.1
Carol L. Beran
"At least its voice isn't mine": The Concept of Voice in Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle*
Carol L. Beran (Ph.D. U of Berkeley) is Associate Professor of English specializing in Canadian Studies at Saint Mary's College of California and vice president of the Margaret Atwood Society. She has published in Essays on Canadian Writing and Canadian Literature, Essays on Canadian Writing (forthcoming), and Proceedings of the Canadian/American Relations Conference (forthcoming).
In "'How to Act': An Essay on Margaret Atwood," B.W. Powe quotes the opening sentences of Atwood's first five novels and complains, "These are all the same voice. There is not much which distinguishes them" (150-151). If he means that Atwood has a characteristic style, that given unidentified selections from the fiction of Atwood, Munro, and Laurence, for example, good readers would be able to distinguish Atwood's writing from that of her contemporaries, I would agree. However, Powe's comments seem to be more damning: he asks us to "observe how one narrative persona could be replaced by one of the others" (150), and remarks that "if you do not have an adequate vision of human nature, then it follows that you would not have a sense of characterization as something objective and distinct" (151). A close look at what Atwood does with voice in her third novel, Lady Oracle (1976), suggests that her use of voice is extremely sophisticated and complex, functioning both to individuate character and to make a statement about life.
In Lady Oracle Margaret Atwood calls attention to the concepts of voice, speaking, and speakers being silenced. The first person narrator, Joan, not only tells the story of her life, she also presents excerpts from the gothic novels and poetry that she writes under different pen names. Her voice functions as a vehicle for the story, as an oracle for her written poems and costume gothics, and as a medium for transmitting Atwood's voice without breaking the illusion that only Joan is speaking. Through contrasting and repetitive structures Joan's voice builds a model of reality as fluctuating, indefinite, definable only by approximation or by juxtaposition of opposing elements. Furthermore, as Joan speaks in her voice, Atwood speaks to us simultaneously, evoking through Joan's voice reactions and perceptions that elude Joan. A study of Atwood's manuscripts of the novel reveals Atwood working to remove traces of her own voice and to heighten the illusion of reality by evoking through the narrator's voice specific times and places. By juxtaposing voices Atwood moves beyond individual instances of satire to make a statement about the interrelationship of fiction and reality in women's lives today.
This essay will first argue that, contrary to Powe's assertion that Atwood's voice is always the same, Atwood has devised three identifiably distinct yet related voices in which Joan, the first person narrator of Lady Oracle, speaks. After distinguishing among the polyphonic voices of the text, this essay will look at how Atwood carefully controls these three voices both to conceal and to reveal her own voice.
The title of Lady Oracle accurately describes the verbal reality of the novel: a woman speaks. Both aspects are significant. As readers we must be wary of being deceived by the narrator's nonchalant treatment of the title. The words "Lady Oracle" come to Joan while she is in a trance-like state doing what she calls "Automatic Writing" (245) and are chosen by her publisher's advertising agent as the title of her book (252). The satire is evident; however, Atwood also chooses these words as the title of her book. Joan's poetic discourse is the vehicle the "god" chooses for her voice; Joan's discourse is also the vehicle Atwood chooses to embody her message.
To understand this novel, then, we must look closely at the voice that speaks to us. The voice speaking to us in Lady Oracle is four voices. Joan, the first person narrator, speaks in what we might call her natural voice, her gothic voice, and her poetic voice, and Atwood speaks in all three of these voices. Each of the first three uses characteristic vocabulary, syntax, and imagery, all of which function to present differing views of reality, and yet, since all are Joan's voices, all three share subtle similarities.
Consider the vocabulary of Joan's gothic voice:
There, spread out on her bed, was her good black silk dress, viciously slashed to ribbons. Great gashes had been cut into the skirt, the bodice had been mutilated beyond repair, the sleeves were in shreds. It looked as though some sharp instrument had been employed, a knife or a pair of scissors. (145)
The words used to describe what happened to the dress are violent and yet elegant: "viciously slashed," "great gashes," "mutilated," and "in shreds." Contrast the word choices a few lines later when Joan is speaking in her natural voice:
I myself didn't have the least idea who'd slashed up her clothes. Redmond, of course, would buy her a new wardrobe, which would fit perfectly, unlike the shabby discards she'd been wearing. She'd hesitate to accept, but what could she do? She didn't have a stitch to her name. Bad things always happened to the clothes of my heroines: bottles of ink got poured over them, holes were burned in them, they got thrown out of windows, shredded, ripped. (146)
Joan's natural voice picks up words from her gothic voice, but undercuts the formality and the high seriousness of each term: "slashed up" has a slanginess that reduces the terror of "viciously slashed," and attaching "ripped" to "shredded" makes the concept seem more ordinary than "sleeves were in shreds" does. Replacement terms similarly remove the romanticism: the "good black silk dress" is seen unromantically as one of the "shabby discards," and a garment with "bodice," "skirt," and "sleeves" has a dignity missing from the clichZ "didn't have a stitch to her name." The different vocabularies of the two juxtaposed descriptions present two different visions of reality.
The voice "Lady Oracle" herself uses seems quite different from either of the other voices, providing yet another view of reality and offering additional evidence to disprove Powe's criticism of the sameness of Atwood's writing voice. Lady Oracle's poetic voice is neither elegantly romantic nor slangy, bordering rather on the heroic as it chants phrases like "iron throne," "oracle of blood," or "her last song" (252). Its syntax also seems, on the surface, different from that of the other two voices; Atwood uses this difference to model a different vision of reality from that embodied in Joan's natural voice or her gothic voice. Where the sentences of the natural voice and the gothic voice tend to pile up nearly synonymous modifiers or nouns after punctuation marks and conjunctions (as in "some sharp instrument had been employed, a knife or a pair of scissors" or "shredded, ripped" in the quotes above), the oracular voice declaims in discon-tinuous fragments:
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
Her glass wings are gone
She floats down the river
singing her last song. (252)
Yet, rewritten in conventional form, the syntax seems much like that of the sentences Joan's natural and gothic voices usually write:
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 obeyed forever. Her glass wings are gone, she floats down the river, singing her last song.
The fragmented poetic form, then, conceals—but minimally—the relationship between Joan's oracular voice and her other voices. The sentence structure is similar in both cases: statements are qualified and specified by words or phrases added in parallel series, suggesting that reality is difficult to define and must therefore be described in closer and closer approximations, none of which individually describes the whole truth, but which taken together give a composite picture of what is being observed.
However, printing Joan's oracular sentences in broken form and Joan's natural and gothic sentences in continuous form is not merely a trick. Each form models reality in a different way and these different models of reality ultimately are functional in conveying Atwood's message. Fragmented, set as a poem, the oracular voice models a fragmented vision of the world, a vision in which things are split from each other and the connections are ambiguous. In the prose sentence, the dark lady, the redgold lady, and the blank lady become items in a series, parallel, equals. In the poetic format, the dark lady and the redgold lady are joined by being on the same line, but split by the extra long space between the two phrases. The blank lady is quite separated from the other two, being on a different line, and whether we are to read "lady oracle" or "lady, oracle of blood" is unspecified; poetic convention suggests we must read both, and the conventions pertaining to oracular utterances also invite us to look for multiple interpretations. Similarly, shall we attach "forever" to "must be obeyed" or to "Her glass wings are gone" or to both? Reality as modelled by the oracular voice seems highly ambiguous, conceived in discrete chunks without clear connections between the chunks and yet with many possible connections hinted.
The syntax of the gothic voice's sentence about the knife implies a different vision of reality: the addition of the specifying clause at the end of the sentence postulates a vision of the world in which an unknown ("some sharp instrument") can be specified in some way ("knife or scissors") even if it cannot be known; the "or" linking the specified terms indicates a mutually exclusive relationship. The sentence may begin in doubt, "It looked as though," but it moves toward clarity even if it does not truly reach it. Had the passage read, "It looked as though a knife or a pair of scissors had been employed," the impression would have been less of wondering, of trying to piece together the snippets of evidence and draw conclusions than it is when Joan's gothic voice says it her way. Joan's gothic voice speaks in the immediacy of the situation, mulling through the possibilities, moving closer to a conclusion but unable to choose between two equally likely if not equally innocuous possibilities.
Compare the comment Joan makes in her natural voice on Aunt Lou's apartment: "it looked unkempt, grubby, shabby even" (130). Here the adjectives in the series articulate Joan's vision with increasing specificity, moving from a general messiness that might easily be addressed by moving scattered objects to their proper places through a suggestion of a situation that could be corrected with dustcloths and soapy mops to a problem more inherent and pervasive, correctable only by replacing furniture and wallpaper. The reality model implicit in this sentence involves progressions that culminate, partial perceptions that become more clear and accurate as the observer observes and the voice records the impressions in the order in which they are received.
One of Lady Oracle's poems has a progression of phrases that on one level is similar to the description of the apartment, as each phrase becomes more sinister than the one before it:
her tears are dark
her tears are jagged
her tears are the death you fear. (247-248)
The similarity reminds us that Joan is the speaker behind all three voices; yet, the breaks in the poetic lines insist that the three observations are not continuous in the same way that the three observations about Aunt Lou's apartment are. The progression from sinister to more sinister to most sinister has not clarified the reality the words describe, since real tears are not dark, jagged, or equatable with death. The terms are evocative because of their connotations, but defy rational penetration. Reality here is not merely confusing; it is impenetrable.1
The vocabulary of the poetic voice seems chosen in passages like this for sheer emotional evocativeness and a dash of heroic flavoring; these qualities distinguish it from the vocabulary chosen to evoke the present by Joan's natural voice and distant past by Joan's gothic voice. The imagery used by each of Joan's voices supports its vocabulary, strengthening our sense of the differing versions of reality presented by each voice. Lady Oracle's images come not from reality but from poetry, echoing Tennyson ("She floats down the river/singing her last song" ), Greek tragedy ("oracle/of blood" ), and Poe ("Under the water, under the water sky" ), to mention just a few possibilities. They appear without temporal or spatial context: "Her glass wings are gone" (252). In what time or place did women have glass wings? Only in the realm of poetry and legend. Is the loss of the wings the reason she floats down the river? Is there a connection between losing the wings, floating down the river and "singing her last song" (252)? In the imagination, yes; in the everyday world, no.
Joan's gothic voice clings to conventional stereotypes in its imagery. Describing Charlotte in her nightgown ("nightrail" in the vocabulary of the costume gothic), the narrator says, "beneath its snowy covering her breasts moved with agitation" (210). The conventional white image for the virgin heroine appears in one of its most conventional forms: snow. Similarly, in describing Charlotte's picture of her mother, the narrator says that the face was "framed in the gently curling tresses of blonde hair fine as spiders' webs" (141). The formal, romantic diction ("framed," "gently," "curling," "tresses") culminates not merely in the traditional blonde hair of the good heroine but in an image of extreme delicacy. Yet the image choice is interesting: golden webs may be a traditional romantic image for a woman's hair, but specifying "spiders' webs"—sticky, grayish things—undercuts the conventional frame of reference. This sounds more like Joan's vision, partially concealed and yet revealed within the traditional image used by her gothic voice.
Joan's natural voice chooses nontraditional, irreverent images. For example, when Arthur is troubled by nightmares, Joan does not accept the motherly feminine role and does not feel privileged to console him: "Sometimes during these nights I would wake up to find Arthur clinging to me as if the bed was an ocean full of sharks and I was a big rubber raft" (219). Her choice of images not only undercuts the woman's motherly role, it also undercuts the man's macho role and the stereotype of the delicate heroine as she compares herself to a "big rubber raft" rather than something more graceful and dainty.
Clearly, then, examining Joan's three voices in Lady Oracle disproves Powe's comments about the sameness of Atwood's voice. Subtle similarities in vocabulary, syntax, and imagery in Joan's three voices link them as coming from one person, while carefully created differences function to individuate the voices and to provide differing visions of reality. Together, the three voices build a model of reality as multiple, fluctuating, indefinite, definable only by approximation or juxtaposition of contrasting elements.
Joan's three voices and the three visions of reality embodied in them are, of course, created and controlled by Atwood for her own artistic purposes. The voice of the narrator in a first person novel is crucial to the novel's effect in that as we read we must be constantly kept under the illusion that the speaking voice is the narrator's, not the author's, and yet at the same time the author's voice must be heard: we must be aware that this is art, not life. In other words, first person narrative is a mode that brings to the reader's attention in a special way the interplay between fiction and reality, and it does this by concentrating attention on a fictional voice that in some way gives embodiment to a real voice at the same time it conceals that real voice. In Lady Oracle this dual quality of the voice is especially significant because it reflects the organizing principle of the novel: Atwood's constant heightening of our perception of the interrelation of art and reality.2
The title of the novel calls attention to the concept of a speaker speaking through the voice of another person: an oracle, according to the OED, is "the mouthpiece of the deity," the medium by which a god speaks. Joan, then, is Lady Oracle in two senses: she writes her poems automatically, as if a supernatural being were dictating them, and her voice as narrator serves as Atwood's oracle, Atwood's mouthpiece. Interestingly, in Atwood's handwritten draft of Lady Oracle, Joan's book is entitled "The Sin Eater"; these words are crossed out and not replaced (5).3 Had Atwood ultimately chosen to give her book and Joan's different titles, we would have less sense of Atwood and Joan both speaking in the same voice, although we might still be aware that they say different things through the voice that speaks in the novel. When Joan's book and Atwood's have the same title, however, we are forced to consider in what respects the artist and her character are and are not one, forced to ask questions about the interrelation of art and life. Looking at how Atwood uses Joan's narrative voice both to conceal herself and to reveal her message is essential to understanding Atwood's art in Lady Oracle.4
When we read Lady Oracle, we listen to a voice. If we could pull out words, phrases, paragraphs, or chapters about which we could say confidently, "That's Atwood speaking, not Joan," the central illusion of the novel would break down. Studying Atwood's manuscripts reveals that in revising the novel Atwood removed both individual touches and longer passages that might seem to be her voice rather than Joan's.
In the first handwritten manuscript of Lady Oracle, Atwood writes, "After that I have a soothing cup of tea and an entire package of Peak [sic] Frean biscuits, imported from England. I believe I am the only person in the town who buys them; the store has a vast supply, and they taste of shelf" (2). "I believe," "vast," and the semicolon smack of the academic, not of colloquial Joan. In the first typed draft, Atwood makes the passage wordier, more academic, with a pedantic repetition in the first sentence and another in the last sentence as well as more formal with words like "acquired," "epedemic" [sic], and "apparantly [sic] never materialized" at the same time that she begins colloquializing??? the voice by handwritten changes: "vast" becomes "large" and "they are" becomes "They're":
After that I have a soothing cup of tea and a package, an entire package, of Peak [sic] Frean biscuits, imported from England. I must be the only person in the town who buys them. The main grocery store has a large supply, acquired for an epedemic [sic] of English tourists that apparantly [sic] never materialized. They're at least two years old and they taste of shelf. (2)
Compare the final published version:
I sat down at the table to drink my tea. Tea was consoling and it would help me think; though this tea wasn't very good, it came in bags and smelled of Band-aids. I'd bought it at the main grocery store, along with a package of Peek Frean biscuits, imported from England. The store had laid in a large supply of these, anticipating a wave of English tourists which so far hadn't arrived. (10)
Here the semicolon, used in a nonstandard situation, seems part of Joan's breezy attitude toward conventions of all kinds. "Band-aids" are precisely the kind of inelegant but vivid imagery we associate with Joan's voice, colloquial rather than learned, unlike the image of an epidemic; similarly, the clichZ, "wave of English tourists," fits Joan's tawdry voice better than the brilliant elliptical comparison to an epidemic, and "so far hadn't arrived" sounds less like the author of Survival than does "apparantly [sic] never materialized."
Similarly, compare the audibility of Atwood the artist's voice in this passage in the first typed draft and in the published novel:
I now think he was probably the same as the daffodil man, though that may be simply a distortion caused by my profession: in books of my sort, the villain often turns out to be the rescuer in disguise. (First typed draft, 64)
I still wasn't sure, though: was it the daffodil man or not? Was the man who untied me a rescuer or a villain? Or, an even more baffling thought: was it possible for a man to be both at once? (67)
Since Joan is a writer, the earlier version is not impossible for her, but it sounds more elegantly analytical both of art and of human nature than Joan usually sounds. The final version keeps us focused on Joan's reaction to the immediate event, giving us a child's perception—Joan is a Brownie at the time this happens—rather than a literary critic's cum psychologist's.
Atwood's omission from the finished version of the novel of a recurring sequence about an owl brought to Joan by some children in Terremoto is perhaps one of the most striking examples of her removing traces of the sophisticated artist that might break the illusion that Joan is speaking. Joan first sees the owl "lying on its back; its eyes are half-closed and there's a spot of blood on the breast but it's still bleeding" (draft 11/2: 33). The owl reappears in various scenes, with Joan eventually caring for it. An early version of the conversation between Joan and Mr. Vitroni that appears on pages 355-360 of the published novel contains many references to the owl, which Mr. Vitroni sees as an omen of bad luck:
"But they gave me the owl," I say, "the children gave it to me! They left it in a box outside the door!"
"No one who does not have the evil eye would take such a thing . . . . To them it means death. But it is also very bad luck to kill one of these or to have it die in your house. So when they find one which is hurt and will die, they give it to you." (first typed draft, 233)
Although it heightens our perception of Joan as a witch, a standard feminine archetype, the owl is simply too overt as a symbol of Joan as a victim in passages such as this; the author of Survival is too audible. Joan's oracular aspect is similarly too obviously handled when Joan says in Chapter 26 of the first typed draft, "Divination by crippled owl. That would be the most reliable, at least its voice isn't mine. But when I limp over to check up on it, it's dead" (8). The owl's voice is not Joan's; Joan's voice is not Atwood's. Omitting the owl from the published version of the novel keeps Atwood's voice from encroaching too clearly on Joan's.
Although Atwood so carefully removed overt evidences of her own voice, readers of the finished novel have been quite aware of Atwood speaking. For example, Brown finds the Lady of Shalott image apparent in Joan's writing automatic poetry and the woman in the poems a reflection of Atwood's thinking:
She is, after all, the most frightening portrait of the artist for Atwood: the artist who cannot confront her world directly but can only perceive the reality she imitates by watching its reflection in her mirror, the artist for whom the attempt to turn from the reflecting surface of her glass to the true world is fatal. (34)
Cude finds that Joan yields to impulses toward tawdry art, notes that "our addiction to mediocrity fosters contempt for real values," and concludes that "in her glib defense of the sub-excellent, we may be reading the epitaph of our entire culture" (148-149). Presumably Atwood, not Joan with her love of tawdry art, speaks that epitaph. Again, Cude posits Atwood's voice:
But Atwood regards gothic escapism as representative of a widespread social evil, so she depicts Joan as hopelessly ensnared in an addiction as debilitating to body and soul as either gluttony or alcoholism. (152)
Perhaps Cude most directly indicates his awareness of Atwood's voice when he writes, "'Because my narrator cannot get the lesson,' Atwood in effect addresses us: 'you, my readers must'" (154). Freibert finds that Joan's disarming honesty "lulls the reader into a misguided trust in Joan's ability to interpret her experiences" (25), and suggests an interpretation beyond Joan's: "Through the metaphor of Joan's life then, Atwood suggests that women must begin to imagine themselves capable of doing and being whatever they would like" (31).
Davey warns that we must not confuse the author's fiction and the narrator's fiction, must not "mistake novels which deconstruct archetypes for novels which confirm them" (67), suggesting he too hears Atwood saying more than Joan says. The fact that readers do hear a voice speaking beyond and through Joan's voices assures us that the life-like qualities of Joan's voice are an illusion, that this is a novel, not an autobiography.
Perhaps the most easily identifiable indication of Atwood's voice is present in the satiric element in the novel. At times, the satire clearly comes from Joan's voice:
My mother's version was that nobody who looked like me could ever accomplish anything, but Aunt Lou was all for dismissing handicaps or treating them as obstacles to be overcome. Crippled opera singers could do it if they would only try. Gross as I was, something might be expected of me after all. I wasn't sure I was up to it. (90)
The last sentence suggests Joan's awareness of the various dis- crepancies of her mother's and aunt's views; Joan is not the object of this satire.
Joan seems more clearly naively reporting—and to some extent being satirized rather than satirizing—in the scene in which she and her publishers discuss publishing her poems. The satire evident in the absurdity of the men's comments on the poetry— "a mixture of Kahlil Gibran and Rod McKuen," "It's like having the Bible, man," "a sort of female Leonard Cohen," "Jungian," "a book that has something for everyone" (251)—we attribute to Atwood, not Joan; we hear Atwood saying something about the process of publishing poetry that Joan herself could not say. Joan's response to their request for a title reminds us within the scene of her naivete: "I haven't thought much about it. I guess I didn't really think it would ever get published. I don't know much about these things" (252). In passages of this sort, then, we hear Atwood's voice satirizing specific aspects of contemporary life that Joan is not canny enough to satirize herself.5
Atwood, however, speaks to us in this novel in another and more sophisticated way than in simple chunks of vividly depicted satire. Atwood speaks through all of Joan's three voices: she speaks in their juxtaposition. This particular set of voices represents three kinds of voices seen frequently in current literature: the natural, chatty voice of the true-life confessional autobiography; the more formal voice of the gothic romance, fabricated out of bits of period vocabulary; and the fragmented, somewhat unintelligible voice of the modern "poet." Juxtaposed, united by being all actually one voice, and that voice a woman's, the three model types of contemporary discourse that reflect and perhaps shape women's lives today, each bearing different relationships with contemporary reality and each commenting on the changing yet unchanging role of women.
Joan's natural voice not only carries the story, it creates the illusion that Joan and her history are real. Manuscript revisions show Atwood working to locate this voice in time and place.6 For example, an early typed manuscript amends "I should have gone to Tunisia or the Canary Islands or even Miami" with a handwritten addition: "Beach on the Greyhound Bus, hotel included" (5),7 firmly locating Joan in a particular contemporary North American cultural milieu. Inserting "bombola" in one of the Terremoto passages (draft 11/2: 2), helps to localize the Italian scenes. Adding "like the neon rose on White Rose Gasoline stations, gone forever, like me" (early typed draft: 4) helps orient us to the Toronto setting in time as well as place. Minute, precise details like "Laura Secord chocolateboxes, Summer Selection" (151), "the Royal York Hotel" (151), or "the Young Lok Gardens on Spadina" (254) appear throughout the finished novel, giving us a feeling of Toronto in the 1950s and 1960s, heightening the illusion of reality.
Joan's gothic voice takes us into a different kind of discourse. Here period details like "tippet" (145) or "her mother's cameo broach" (141) or "a dark cloak, thrown loosely over a sumptuous costume of flaming orange silk, with blue velvet trim" (215) or "a black cloaked shape," fleeing, after "one of the ornaments of the balcony above toppled over and crashed on the balustrade beside her" (216) locate the gothic story in a distant time period and a decaying mansion just as clearly as White Rose Gas Stations or the Royal York Hotel locate the contem-porary story. Again, looking at Atwood's notes to herself in the manuscripts suggests the care with which she created the period through word choices:
She was bending over her—microscope? Jewellers glass? what the hell do they use, I must check that—(early handwritten draft 6-7). . . have I mentioned Redmond's pock marks? (early hand-written draft 7. Emphasis added in both places.)
Juxtaposing Joan's natural voice with the fabricated voice from the past sets two modes of describing women's experiences side by side. Joan herself makes some connections between the two, but we make connections that Joan overlooks, and in doing so, we are acknow-ledging Atwood's voice in the novel, concealed but unmistakably present.8 For example, at one point Charlotte "heard a sound . . . a sound that came from outside, below, on the terrace . . . the sound of footsteps" (209). Just after Joan writes this gothic passage she tells us:
I heard a sound.
There was someone outside, on the path. I could hear stealthy footsteps, coming down towards me. (211)
Joan then spends a page wondering who is there, but she makes no connections between her own experience and Charlotte's.9 Yet Atwood's juxtaposition of the two parallel scenes forces us to make comparisons: Joan and her life may be on one level quite different from Charlotte and her life, but on another level both reveal the unchanging role of women as victims. The women may change, but their role is archetypal.10
Similarly, the oracular voice comments on the other two voices and they on it. Like the oracles of old, Joan's oracular voice pronounces vague ambiguities, depicting women as mysterious, emotional, not rational. Floating down an imaginary river in a time and place that is purely imaginary, the woman in the poems again reflects the archetype of woman as victim; she may sit on a throne, but she is "singing her last song" (252). Joan discusses the poetry for several pages, telling how she uses Roget's Thesaurus for synonyms, but she makes no connections between the woman "standing in the prow" whose tears are "the death you fear/Under the water" (247-248) and her own faked death in Lake Ontario; in fact, she writes, "She wasn't like anyone I'd ever imagined, and certainly she had nothing to do with me" (248). Taken in chronological sequence, Lady Oracle's references to drowning must be seen as prophetic; but Joan is telling us her life story from a point after her fabricated death in Lake Ontario, and might therefore be expected to note the prophecy and its fulfillment. Again we make connections that Joan fails to make because of Atwood's juxtapositions of the different voices.11
By the end of the novel each of Joan's voices has been cut off: Lady Oracle's by undergoing her planned death, Charlotte's by being choked in the maze, and Joan's by being subsumed by the reporter who is going to write her story as she has told it to him. That leaves only Atwood's voice speaking ultimately.
The three conventional voices that represent typical contemporary female modes of discourse both conceal and reveal the authentic voice—the voice of the true artists, the voice of the real woman. The relationship of art to reality as embodied in this novel, then, is that the artist's voice represents reality, but to speak it needs embodiment in fictional voices, and to give an accurately complex representation of reality for women today the artist needs more than one voice.
Atwood's use of voice in Lady Oracle is complex and subtle. Three voices that are distinct yet interconnected are juxtaposed in such a way as to give voice to Atwood herself while maintaining the fiction that only Joan is speaking. None of the narrative voices in Lady Oracle "could be replaced by one of the others," as Powe suggests of all Atwood's voices (150), for doing so would simplify the interaction between the three voices, perhaps justifying Powe's accusation that Atwood's vision of human nature is inadequate (151). Instead, through the voices in Lady Oracle Atwood makes a serious and adequate statement about fictions that shape the reality of women's lives.
1Near the end of the novel, Joan sees her (dead) mother crying and observes, "Mascara ran from her eyes in black tears" (362). Joan goes on to identify her mother as "the lady in the boat" (363), suggesting one meaning for the poems based on psychological associative truth rather than objective reality.
2See my paper "George, Leda, and a Poured Concrete Balcony: A Study of Three Aspects of the Evolution of Lady Oracle," in which I argue that this is the organizing principle around which this novel is built.
3Permission to quote from Atwood's manuscripts has been granted by Phoebe Larmore, agent for Margaret Atwood, 16 December 1985, and the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
4Compare Booth's description of "the implied author":
Even the novel in which no narrator is dramatized creates an implicit picture of an author who stands behind the scenes. This implied author is always distinct from the "real man"—whatever we may take him to be—who creates a superior version of himself, a "second self," as he creates his work . . . . (151)
Whereas Booth's subject is the classification of the effects of various kinds of narrators, my focus is on the aspects of the verbal surface of Joan's narrative that allow us to construct the implied "Atwood. I use the term "voice" to focus on the verbal surface of the narrative.
5Moss suggests the significance of Joan's being satirized: "Whatever meaning we are to draw from Joan comes from outside her own recognition of things. She is more a part of the satire than the heroines of Atwood's earlier fiction were" (5). Booth notes:
Whenever an author conveys to his reader an unspoken point, he creates a sense of collusion against all those, whether in the story or out of it, who do not get that point. Irony is always thus in part a device for excluding as well as for including, and those who are included, those who happen to have the necessary information to grasp the irony, cannot but derive at least part of their pleasure from a sense that others are excluded. . . . The author and reader are secretly in collusion, behind the speaker's back, agreeing upon the standard by which he is found wanting. (304)
The effect of such passages as the discussion with the publishers is to reinforce our sense that Atwood is saying something more than what Joan says.
6Mitchell notes that the setting provides some measure of verisimilitude for a totally unreliable narrator (52). I would argue that the narrator's voice seems real because it provides the realistic details of the setting.
7The typed draft fragments which I call "early typed drafts" here are labelled "early manuscripts" in the file at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library; however, internal textual evidence suggests these pages are actually the part of the second typed draft noted as missing from the file.
8Booth notes that "the narrator may be more or less distant from the implied author," and that the distance may be intellectual, moral, spatial, or temporal (156). The distance in Lady Oracle is generally intellectual in specific scenes, but moral in its ultimate effect.
9As Brown notes, Joan does become more aware of the similarities between her life and Charlotte's as the story progresses: "Joan Foster must recognize how she tends to live out the same patterns which she creates for her heroines in the costume gothics she writes" (24). Joan never, however, becomes as aware of this as Atwood makes us.
10Atwood phrases what her own voice is saying through the gothic slightly differently in an interview with J. R. Struthers:
I think in an anti-gothic what you're doing is examining the perils of gothic thinking, as it were. And one of the perils of gothic thinking means that you have a scenario in your head which involves certain roles. . . and that as you go to real life you tend to cast real people in these roles as Joan does. Then when you find out that the real people don't fit these two-dimensional roles, you can either discard the roles and try to deal with the real person or discard the real person. (23-24)
11Joan connects this victimized woman with a powerful goddess (248) and (much later) with her mother (363). The archetypal significance of these connections is discussed in Sciff-Zamaro's essay, "The Re/Membering of the Female Power in Lady Oracle."
Atwood, Margaret. Lady Oracle. New York: Avon Books, 1976.
—. Manuscripts of Lady Oracle. Atwood Papers. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, U of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
—. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi Press, 1972.
Beran, Carol L. "George, Leda, and a Poured Concrete Balcony: A Study of Three Aspects of the Evolution of Lady Oracle." Canadian Literature 112 (Spring 1987): 18-28.
Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961.
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Cude, Wilfred. A Due Sense of Difference: An Evaluative Approach to Canadian Literature. Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 1980.
Davey, Frank. Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984.
Freibert, Lucy M. "The Artist as Picaro: The Revelation of Margaret Atwood's 'Lady Oracle.'" Canadian Literature 92 (Spring 1982): 23-33.
Mitchell, Leila G. "The External World in the Novels of Margaret Atwood." Journal of Canadian Studies 15 (Spring 1980): 45-55.
Moss, John. A Reader's Guide to the Canadian Novel. Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1981.
Powe, B. W. "'How to Act': An Essay on Margaret Atwood." A Climate Charged. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1984. 143-153.
Sciff-Zamaro, Roberta. "The Re/Membering of the Female Power in Lady Oracle." Canadian Literature 112 (Spring 1987): 32-38.
Struthers, J. R. "An Interview with Margaret Atwood." Essays on Canadian Writing 6 (Spring 1977): 18-27.
*The research for this project was supported by The Canadian Studies Enrichment Program and St. Mary's College Faculty Development Fund..