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Dames of Distress: Female Violence and Revised Socio-Cultural Discourses in the Fiction of Margaret Atwood
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This study examines the figure of the violent woman in Atwood’s fiction as a productive starting point for the re-evaluation of various socio-cultural debates. Emerging from Atwood’s conviction that art, in its various forms, is often involved in the re-writing of convention, I begin by re-defining traditional constructions of womanhood and violence in order to evince the reformative work and often unconventional forms of brutality employed by women in Atwood’s novels, including Surfacing, The Blind Assassin, Lady Oracle, and Cat’s Eye, and in her collections of short fiction, such as Dancing Girls, Bluebeard’s Egg, The Penelopiad, and The Tent. Throughout, I demonstrate the ambivalence of violence as both destructive and generative, Canadian and un-Canadian, and Atwood’s drawing on this destabilizing ambivalence in order to propose change within her broader social milieu. More precisely, the introductory chapter offers an overview of representations of female violence in Canadian fiction, and of the various responses to this figure as she appears in Atwood’s fiction, that point to the need for a critical vocabulary that addresses women’s capacity to enact harm. The second chapter examines the various mythologies that define Canada and its people, and how the violent woman troubles these mythologies by inciting recognition of national identity as a narrative process open to re-evaluation. The third chapter moves away from this focus on national narratives to highlight the discourses that similarly shape our understanding of art, and those who participate in it. Here, the violent woman can be seen to engage in revisionary work by exposing the limits of the Red Shoes Syndrome that has in many ways come to define the fraught relationship between the female artist and her art. The final chapter examines Atwood’s on-going fascination with various kinds of mythologies and her revisions of Classical and Biblical myths in order to highlight the veritable range of female violence and the possibility, and at times necessity, of responding to these behaviors in ways that circumnavigate traditionally masculine forms of justice ethics. In focusing on how Atwood’s violent women engage these various socio-cultural discourses, this study concludes that traditionally marginal and nonliterary figures can perform central and necessary roles and that Atwood’s fiction responds to, and in turn (re)creates, the social environment from which it emerges.