Tourists and Terrorists: The Creation of Bodily Harm All writers believe, must believe, that if you can only get the right words into the right order, once anyway, the world will be miraculously transformed.
The facts of this world seen clearly
are seen through tears
("Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written")
When a writer as prolific and gifted as Margaret Atwood is still in mid-career, it is hazardous at best to make general statements assessing which of her works are most significant, which are the key texts. As Atwood's fame has reached international audiences and her work is sold even in supermarkets, her most recent novels, The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Cat's Eye (1988) have reached readers who have never read her previous work. The Handmaid's Tale, too, has the advantage (or the disadvantage) of a film counterpart. For these reasons, a great deal of attention has been paid to the recent novels. The other focus of some international interest has been on Surfacing (1972), which attracted notice as a modern female bildungsroman, capable of ecofeminist, religious and psychoanalytic interpretations.
The amount of attention focused on these novels has drawn interest away from Bodily Harm (1981), Margaret Atwood's fifth novel and one which may be remembered in the long run as one of her major achievements. Bodily Harm is not only a unique synthesis of the primary issues in Atwood's fiction; it is also a culmination of a distinct shift in her fiction from comedy-of-manners and psychological plots to a much more overtly political fiction, a shift which was both deliberate and difficult. Although The Handmaid's Tale is a stridently political fiction, Bodily Harm manages to focus on issues which have more personal impact and international political importance than the evangelical right. The achievement of Bodily Harm is that in it Margaret Atwood finally manages to speak to the pressing political concerns in which she had involved herself in the seventies, using a metaphor (cancer) which reveals the connections between the larger political systems of power in the world (Royal Canadian Mounted Police, CIA, repressive third-world governments, drug racketeers) and the systems of power which oppress women (pornography, patriarchal control of medical practices, advertising) thus making visible the relationship between sexual and political oppression.
Atwood's ability to write a novel of these proportions did not arise suddenly. Instead, Bodily Harm represents the climax of years of writing, much of it unpublished, in which she worked through the problem of the fictional representation of political and ethical dilemmas at the same time that she was re-thinking the social demands upon the artist in her speeches and polemical articles. Although the harsh political realities of the last fifty pages of Bodily Harm appear to be an abrupt new direction, as if Atwood were a journalist who (like Rennie Wilford) had been suddenly transferred from the "Living" section to front page news, by using material from the files in the Atwood Collection at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library (University of Toronto), we can trace, in a limited way, Margaret Atwood's development as she incorporated her political activity into her fiction. Themes of imperialism, of repressive and subversive governmental operations, of oppression of dissident groups -- these are not merely backgrounds to the fiction. Instead, the fiction itself becomes a conscious political act insofar as it exposes and sensitizes the reader to pressing political issues.1
The draft material reveals, in short, the prolonged effort required to pull together the distinct identities of the artist's existence: the private creative writer and the public political activist. In fact, the emerging fiction reflects self-consciously upon the choices involved in that union. Although Margaret Atwood would say (in "An End to Audience?") that "fiction writing is the guardian of the moral and ethical sense of the community" (Second Words 346), that "the novel is a moral instrument" (353), it was not easy to turn this commitment into actuality. Although Atwood jokes (in her review of Midnight Birds) that art should not be a mirror but "some even more practical tool such as a shovel" (Second Words 360), perhaps implying that art must often deal with different forms of manure, shovels are difficult to handle. How does the author of The Edible Woman become the creator of the urine and feces and vomit of Rennie and Lora's prison? And why?
Rebecca and Rowena in the Tower
In The CanLit Foodbook (1987), Margaret Atwood reveals an early vision of what would become Bodily Harm. In her Introduction, she opens by pointing back to her experience with Sir Walter Scott's most famous novel:
I think I first connected literature with eating when I was twelve and reading Ivanhoe: there was Rebecca, shut up romantically in a tower, but what did she have to eat? (1, emphasis in original)
Perhaps the power of Bodily Harm is precisely in its excess realism: we finally discover what Rebecca and Rowena had to eat: salted tea, cold rice and raw chicken backs. But the Atwood files tell us that Bodily Harm was developed out of even more pungent material. In the second draft of Surfacing, fifteen years before the Foodbook, Atwood's obsession with Ivanhoe took a different form:
Rebecca, Rowena, what was the good of being a captive maiden in a tower if you had to worry about where you could pee? They must have thought more about that than about how they were going to get away or even about Ivanhoe. (Box 21, "Where is Here" 63)
Again, Bodily Harm is clearly the culmination of years of thinking about how to rewrite Ivanhoe, to rethink the English classics so as to speak to lives in the late twentieth century. Atwood focus on where and how Rennie and Lora urinate and defecate thus may be seen as a triumphant inversion of the classic English novel -- in a story with a vastly different audience and purpose. The emphasis on raw chicken and buckets of human excrement is a political act: a shovel to change the world.
As the lapse in time between Atwood's attempts to retell the story of Rebecca and Rowena indicates, the creation of Bodily Harm was the result of several "trial runs." Surfacing, for example, is an early "tourist" story, in which the heroine, journeying north rather than south, is, like Rennie Wilford, disconnected from her own body. But Bodily Harm truly began as a short story.
"A Travel Piece"
Margaret Atwood wrote several drafts, in different forms, of a story which was finally published as "A Travel Piece" in 1975. As the title suggests, the story takes off from the genre of travel writing, with a heroine who is a professional tourist (thoughts of Anne Tyler's Accidental Tourist are appropriate here). We can usefully think of the heroine, Annette, as both a character and also an allegorical representative of Canada.
I read "A Travel Piece," part of Life Before Man, and all of Bodily Harm as a continuing saga in which this "tourist" figure is confronted by difficult and ever more realistic encounters with the horrors of international political and cultural aggression. The tourist discovers, slowly, that pure tourism (neutral, harmless, curious) is no longer possible in the modern world, that sight itself is a political act, and that every tourist has the potential to be also a terrorist.2 Thus, these fictions give us a miniature portrait of Canada herself (neutral, harmless), slowly discovering the impossibility of real "neutrality" in an increasingly interdependent "global village."
Because the point of view in the short story is that of Annette, a travel-writer (like Rennie Wilford) flying toward the Caribbean, critics have already commented upon the connections between this story and Bodily Harm. Ildiko de Papp Carrington's extended treatment usefully summarized the similarities:
The protagonists of both the story and the novel are trendy journalists writing a travel piece about a Caribbean island, they even have similar names and similar men . . . At first, both characters are tourists who see life only on the surface . . . In both works, this way of seeing life through the eyes of the tourist is a metaphor for a deliberate refusal to commit oneself to life, to risk the vulnerability of active participation . . . Both characters, however, are suddenly plunged through the surface and into the hitherto concealed darkness underneath. (45-46)
"A Travel Piece," in other words, is an early attempt at the themes which Atwood would extend and complicate in Bodily Harm. Unlike the plot of the novel, however, the plot of the short story simply carries the heroine (Annette) into an emergency crash landing in the sea and through the subsequent days aboard a life raft, focusing on the strains among the floating survivors. The story climaxes when the passengers decide to practice cannibalism, to take the life of a student who has become delirious: "But they are going to slit his throat, like that pig on the beach at Mexico, and for once she does not find it quaint or unusual" (Dancing Girls 143). Fortunately, the cannibal act is never consummated; the story ends before any action has been taken, with Annette asking herself, "Am I one of them or not?" (143).
Will this writer eat the student or will she stand aloof? The primary issue is the responsibility of the writer for other human beings. Is she a "tourist," an onlooker, or is she willing to step in to take responsibility in the world? Thus the story enters into Atwood's ongoing dialogue about the uses and purposes of art, whether the artist is only an observer of the human species, "exempt" because of her profession, or whether she has some further responsibility. Yet the fiction also allows us to think about Canada's place in the lifeboat (Earth) with the other nations of the world. "A Travel Piece" is a story which leaves the reader shivering at the icy personality of the heroine, who has distanced herself from involvement in the sufferings of the people she observes in order to write newspaper pieces that sound like travel brochures. Although it is difficult for the heroine to decide whether to try to stop the murder and cannibalism, the choice is clear for the reader -- and thus the tale, unlike the heroine, is political, even urgent, in its message.
"A Travel Piece" is an interesting artifact because the story was at one point written and revised (albeit never produced) for use as a television script, first with the title "The Life Boat" (ironically referring to the death on board) and later "A Rubber Boat" (a title which set the life and death situation aboard the raft against the assumption that the boat is merely a toy, an assumption that life and death only happen in stories or in fantasy).3 This television version emphasizes the inhumanity of humankind through the visual effect of turning people into birds or aliens or simply "bad guys." All of the survivors use sun goggles (made of plastic sandwich trays) and also feathers for protection from the sun. They do need that protection, but in a visual medium like television, the effect of their goggles is to turn the survivors into animals or bandits -- so that their odd costumes become an objective correlative for their inhuman behavior. The victim in the television script is already dead, so murder is not an issue, only cannibalism. Also, the victim is an old woman, not a student. The dilemma of the heroine, however, remains the same: her struggle to decide whether to join in the cannibalistic fray or to attempt to remain uninvolved:
The old woman dies. Now the question arises: what should they do with her? Should they throw her overboard or eat her? Everyone but Maude [new name for Annette] is in favor of eating her . . . but here Maude draws the line. The business man makes a speech about all having to stick together, and when it's a question of the group it's one for all and all for one. He asks Maude whether she is with them or against them. They look like inhuman creatures, they are crouching around the old woman. Last shot is of their heads, marked and painted, staring at Maude, waiting for her answer. (Box 41, "A Rubber Boat" 4)
In this piece, the ultimate issue is the question of what constitutes humanity.4 The costumes adopted by the plane crash survivors imply that in an extreme situation, humans can easily go over the line to bizarre, even animal, behavior. What is the responsibility of the observer here? The horrifying extreme of the heroine's position is probably that unless she acquiesces in the group "activity," her own body will provide the next meal.
The importance of this early attempt at Bodily Harm is that it shows Atwood beginning to approach the issue of the "politics" of the writer, in the broad sense of politics as meaning who is doing what to whom; Atwood is also now moving outside the boundaries of Canada to a more international setting than she used for her first two novels. Although the cannibalism appears to be irrelevant, it actually turns out to be a continuing touchstone as Atwood searches for a trope that will fully expose the horrors of imperialism and inhuman behavior all over the globe.
Life Before Man
Life Before Man (1979) is a comedy-of-manners novel which resonates unexpectedly with larger issues. Perhaps Atwood's least satisfying novel, the compass is narrowly constricted to an examination of depressing moments in the lives of several depressed characters, among whom, even Atwood admits, the central figure, Elizabeth is "one of the most unpleasant characters" (Mendez-Egle 176) she has created. Without analyzing the novel in depth, I nevertheless can point to evidence that Atwood's aesthetic is moving in strikingly new directions even during the creation of Life Before Man.
Briefly, the novel is a fragmented story told from the points of view of Elizabeth, Nate and Lesje. Elizabeth and Lesje both work at the Royal Ontario Museum, while Nate is an attorney who makes wooden toys rather than practice law. Elizabeth and Nate's marriage breaks up during the course of the novel; Lesje breaks up with her lover, William; Nate and Lesje end up together, finally conceiving a child. The entire book is haunted by the suicide of Elizabeth's lover, Chris, and the death of her Auntie Muriel.
The obvious link in this novel between "A Travel Piece" (and its television script manifestation) and Bodily Harm is the party game called "Lifeboat," played at Elizabeth and Nate's house when Lesje and William are dinner guests. Elizabeth controls the game: "'We are all in a lifeboat, she says, 'and the food is running out. What you have to do is convince everyone else why you should be allowed to remain in the lifeboat instead of being thrown overboard'" (139). Nate, who is the closest approximation to an artist figure in the text, establishes a distance from the whole dilemma -- and thus from Elizabeth -- by replying that he would jump overboard, sacrificing himself "for the good of the group" (139). Elizabeth, on the other hand, turns out quite characteristically to be a cannibal cook:
"I'm a sensational cook . . . We should be saving [people ] and eating them. Let's drag Nate back in." (139)
Even Lesje's graceless suggestion that she could identify any bones discovered turns grisly in the light of Elizabeth's propensities. Thus the lifeboat cannibalism story of "A Travel Piece" is transformed into a party game in Life Before Man, a game which serves as a miniature of the human interactions throughout the novel. Symbolically, it is as if Elizabeth could slide over into cannibalism without a qualm, as if the artist Nate would be like Annette (or Maude): the next meal.
As the strongest sympathetic character in Life Before Man and as an artist as well, Nate focuses the artistic concerns of the text. Thus his abrupt transition in the last pages from stay-at-home craftsman to legal-aid attorney raises significant questions. Without quite advocating the abandonment of the artistic calling for more socially relevant employment, Nate's change is an indicator of the mood of the text; he is forced by the circumstances of his love life to give up toy-making in order to earn money, in order to become financially independent of Elizabeth. The word "maturity" is attached to this change, but the net effect is one of lost innocence, an acknowledgment of the "tears" which living in the real world entails.
Within Life Before Man, Atwood considers the relevance of art to one's own personal life, especially as Elizabeth, at the end, looks over the exhibit of Chinese crafts. Appropriately, that exhibit consists of propaganda materials, produced for political purposes, exalting the significance of the everyday. In a similar vein, Life Before Man seems itself to be moving toward an art which knows that it is also political. In fact, although this aspect of the novel is generally unnoticed, political issues are raised -- and dropped almost as quickly. Examples are: Amnesty International ["Scientists drugged in Soviet lunatic asylums. South African blacks shot or kicked to death while 'escaping'" (33) ] ; the election success of the Parti Quebecoi; and the use of the Mounties (RCMP) for internal spying similar to that of the C.I.A. These overt references in Life Before Man to national and international political turmoil are fleeting, as if the atmosphere of political activity were more significant than the fact. The work Nate's mother does for Amnesty International, for example, defines her character and sets it against Nate's artistry, as if his toy-making were his rebellion against his parent. On the other hand, Nate's decision, late in the text, to substitute for his mother, gathering signatures against "RCMP wrongdoing" is an act both of reconciliation with his mother and of commitment (albeit minimal) to political involvement. After he is through with his stint, the chapter ends: "he will lose himself among the apathetic, the fatalistic, the uncommitted, the cynical; among whom he would like to feel at home" (282 my emphasis), as if political involvement were an unavoidable necessity.5
This change in Nate is indicative of Margaret Atwood's preoccupations while writing Life Before Man. Her draft and research materials reveal that the political issues alluded to in the novel form a much more significant "subtext" than is visible in the published version. Her research materials include almost nothing except extremely political references, such as data on the Canadian Civil Liberties campaign (against "RCMP wrongdoing"), a description of their offices and of the actual petition which Nate is circulating. The background materials for Lesje are definitely more political as well: a pamphlet on "Nazi Policies in the Ukraine," one on Lithuania and World War II, one on "Life and Death of Estonian Jewry" about Nazi persection of Jews, and two other articles on the Ukraine and Latvia during the Second World War. Atwood seems to have been considering a much more substantial theme of political persecution of minority groups which would have linked Nate and Lesje through Nate's mother and Lesje's grandmothers.
The most interesting "subtext" of "Notes on the Mesozoic" (Atwood's first title for Life Before Man) is written literally beneath the text; the first typescript is typed on the back of a series of printed papers about internal spying in Canada. At least three different articles have been used, all of which critique -- in bureaucratic language -- governmental powers of civilian surveillance. Title pages include "The Accessibility of Information vs. The Protection of Secrecy," "Safeguards against Police Abuse," and "The Scope of Police Powers" (Box 30, first typed draft). In addition, pages 23 and 24 are written on the back of a strident political poem about germ warfare called "The Autoclaves" by Stuart MacKinnon (Box 30, first typed draft).
Further, animal torture seems to be a political issue as well. In the holograph (very first) draft, Atwood has added two extra pages, most of which is the Amnesty International material, all written on the back of a strange memorandum about tourist projects in Africa. Bureaucratic language obfuscates the malevolent intention of the writer, but this is clear: "Among other things I would like to try . . . is castration of surplus males, de-horning and intensive handling, none of which would have very much appeal for tourists wishing to see natural wild herds" (Box 30, holograph, pages added between 33 and 34). Ironically, perhaps intentionally, Atwood's own writing on these pages is about torture and killings: "children tortured in front of their mothers. Sons disappearing, to surface months later, bludgeoned to death, tossed on roadsides" (33).
The connection between the research materials, the memorandum, the publications which serve as typing paper, and the published allusions to Amnesty International and "RCMP wrongdoing" will be explored much more fully in Bodily Harm. But even in these drafts of Life Before Man, called "Notes on the Mesozoic" and "Notes from the Lost World" (the latter title ringing quite vividly of a sense of despair over the state of the world), the worldwide pattern of torture, spying and persecution of minority groups (Estonians, Latvians, Quebecois, political dissidents of all nationalities, civil liberties advocates, even animals) is quite overwhelming. Overwhelming in the files, almost incidental to the published novel.
In spite of his mother's commitment to political causes, Nate steadfastly refuses to deal with such material because he "finds these newsletters of [his mother] so overwhelmingly painful that he's no longer able to read them" (34). One sympathizes with Nate's initial reaction, which is to slip this material "into the waste paper basket, then [go ] to the cellar to pound and chisel" (34). We can easily understand his feeling that the evils of the world are beyond his personal control. Further, if we think of Nate as the analog, in the Lifeboat party game, to Annette, the tourist, both closer to being victims than cannibals, we are reminded that both of them are playing the role of Canada in the world of nations, forced to choose between action and silence, between paying attention to the newsletter and working at one's hobby.6
As a conclusion to this quick look at the context for Life Before Man, let me return to the beginning. Perhaps the most poignant unpublished material of all is an epigraph from the first typed draft, again referring to the persecution of minorities during the Second World War. This epigraph would have spoken particularly strongly to the fact of Lesje's Jewish ancestry, a point which is almost irrelevant within the final version of the novel:
We have decided to describe the present time. Yesterday we sat up till late in the night, since we did not know whether we would survive till today. Now I am in the midst of writing, while in the streets the terrible shooting is going on . . .
--Naum Grzywacz, Warsaw Ghetto, August 3, 1942 (Box 30, first typed draft)
This particular epigraph was typed along with the two that were finally published. Perhaps this one was excised because with Life Before Man Atwood, too, was still tempted to go "to the cellar to pound and chisel," perhaps because the metaphors with which to express the "cancer" of the worldwide abrogation of human rights had not yet come to her. Finally, in Bodily Harm and in The Handmaid's Tale, she would find the language to illuminate the connections between one's individual life and the horrors of international espionage, sabotage and corruption.
Bodily Harm ties together three ideas through the vocabulary of cancer: threats to personal identity (especially the female body), pornography (and its connections to rape and perverse masculine use of women's bodies), and imperialism (perverse use of third world countries by major powers). With a heroine who is innocent yet diseased, visiting an island people with no exploitive motives, Bodily Harm allows and even suggests the interpretation of imperialism as a larger form of gender relations -- and emphasizes the integral connection between the two. In Bodily Harm, Atwood's political and aesthetic principles are finally combined into a cohesive and quite powerful whole. After the tentative starts of "A Travel Piece" and Life Before Man, Atwood has found the images to convey her insight that, as Rubenstein phrases it, "the female experience cannot be understood apart from the real structures of power," that the "body politic is the form writ large of the individual body . . . bodily harm and exploitation in one domain are correspondingly registered in the other" (Boundaries 101).7
Like Life Before Man, Bodily Harm is also a fragmented text that replicates the fragmentation of identity and of the world. With an amputated breast as the central metaphor of the book, the fragmentation of the text mirrors the many amputations of the story; it is a book of bodies with parts scattered or missing. The novel consists of parts of a conversation between two women incarcerated as political prisoners in a tiny two-island Caribbean republic, St. Antoine/ St. Agathe (parallel to St. Vincent and St. Lucia). In order to discover how she came to be in prison, the heroine, Rennie Wilford, tells the story of her life: her repressed childhood, her career as a "lifestyles" reporter, her attempt to cover a pornography exhibition, her breast cancer and mastectomy, her discovery that police have frightened away a stranger who had entered her home in order to tie her down with a rope and to rape her. Rennie has attempted to escape her problems by writing a Caribbean travel article, but has found herself embroiled in the political turmoil of the island, urged by one candidate for Prime Minister, Dr. Minnow, to report the operations of the local repressive government to the outside world. She is also befriended by the lover (Lora) of another candidate, Prince of Peace, and becomes involved in transporting a machine-gun that is eventually used to kill both Dr. Minnow and Prince. Lora, whose life has been much harsher, also tells her story, echoing themes expressed by Rennie and suggesting an even darker reality in terms of class.8
In the Toronto airport, Rennie Wilford has bought a "thriller" to read on the long flight to Barbados. Unfortunately, she finishes the book before the short hop to her destination, St. Antoine, so she is left "bookless," and without a defense against personal interaction with her seatmate, Dr. Minnow. Partly because she has no book, Rennie is unwillingly sucked into the political catastrophes of the two-island country: the election, Dr. Minnow's assassination, and her own subsequent incarceration. If Rennie had had more thrillers, she might have avoided interaction with Dr. Minnow, Lora, Paul and Prince's grandmother; she might have remained "exempt" from involvement in politics. She might have been able to remain an observer, as she did on the night after the election, when she read murder mysteries, more thrillers, in order to avoid the revolution brewing in the next room.
In order to insulate herself from the political disasters all around her, Rennie might, in fact, have picked up Bodily Harm, a book with a cover suggesting that it, too, is a "thriller." The Bantam paperback edition, for example, is pink and blue, setting off a woman in white who is wading near a tropical beach at sunset, looking slightly vulnerable, slightly afraid. The cover also boasts critical raves suggesting excitement: "Romance and adventure by a female Graham Greene" and "Superior writing, terrifying suspense." Echoing the vocabulary of the traditional thriller, the blurb on the back notes that Rennie "is confronted by a world where her rules for survival no longer apply." Inside, the reviews continue in the same vein, and include one which is particularly suggestive of the male erotic of the thriller genre: "YOU WILL BE THRUST, in this book, toward a climax that had me sitting bolt upright, chilled, gasping, eyes eating words like Pac-Man" (caps in original). Literature as orgasm.
Ironically, then, if Bodily Harm is the sort of "thriller" publishers label it, it should also be the sort of book which would insulate the reader from involvement in the political events which eventually raise the consciousness of the heroine. It should provide both complete escape from reality and also instant gratification, some satisfying "climax" which would indicate that the world has been restored to order, relieving the reader of all concern.
In fact, of course, while Bodily Harm employs the geography, the vocabulary, and even some of the narrative techniques of the thriller genre, it represents a co-optation of that form which provides a model for the sort of "subversion" envisioned for Rennie at the close of the novel. While maintaining some thriller characteristics, the very fragmented, non-linear form of the novel makes demands on the reader which render impossible either the climax or the instant gratification available in the usual linear, climactic thriller. Additionally, the operation of multiple levels of the the plot (so that the thriller plot is only the "largest" expression of the cancer theme and the pornography story) is an attempt to force the reader to confront future thrillers with the subversive vision of the novel -- and even to recognize that the thriller style may itself be dangerous, insofar as it condones simplistic approaches to, for example, international politics and male-female relationships.
The form of Bodily Harm is more "political" than that of any of Atwood's previous fiction. Elaine Tuttle Hansen even interprets the entire novel as a recorded "consciousness-raising" session involving two women (10). We as readers are shocked to finally discover, near the end, that Rennie and Lora's conversation is taking place in the tiny, dark, smelly cell of a prison where the speakers are being held captive.
Atwood has finally written her own version of Rebecca and Rowena in the tower, and now we know, in precise detail, where they "shit" and what they eat -- and the knowledge is frightening. We do not end the novel with a sigh of relief that the world has been restored to order, but with a much more energizing revelation, that the heroines are still in prison, that one of them may be dead, and that their only hope of getting out of prison is set in a future tense that guarantees nothing. The novel ends, in short, quite like an Amnesty International newsletter, with the difference that we know much more about the personal lives of the victims than we do about A.I. victims. Further, we understand that repressive politics is only part of the problem, that both actually and metaphorically, political imprisonment is part of the larger problem of the wielding of power in the world.
In order to explicate, in detail, exactly how this pseudo-thriller achieves such ends, the use of the draft material is again quite useful in developing the "subground" (to use Rennie's phrase) of the story. The many epigraphs which Atwood was considering and the revisions she made reveal the author developing her material in more explicitly political directions, moving away from her familiar themes of personal trauma and renewal, from witty satire of the Canadian milieu. We can observe feminist writings giving Atwood a vocabulary for the concerns which she had been raising long before the feminist movement, and, too, the draft material makes it clear that this is a major text in the development of Atwood's aesthetic. As Atwood suggests in her article on re-reading, she had come to realize that "if you can only get the right words into the right order, once anyway, the world will be miraculously transformed" (14). In Bodily Harm, she attempts to transform the world.
The first working title of Bodily Harm, "The Robber Bridegroom," was taken from a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. The tale also furnished an epigraph which Atwood typed for one of her drafts:
Then said the bridegroom to the bride: "Come, my darling, do you know nothing? Relate something to us like the rest." She replied: "Then I will relate a dream . . ." (Box 33, "Rope Quartet")
What the epigraph does not reveal, but which is of singular importance for Bodily Harm, is the full fairy tale, "The Robber Bridegroom." This is the story of a young girl who is worried about marrying the fiance her father has arranged, so she makes a visit to his house. A bird in the house warns her to leave, telling her that the inhabitant is a murderer; this idea is repeated by an old woman sitting in the cellar: "They've made me put this big kettle on to boil. If they lay hands on you, they'll chop you to pieces without mercy, and they'll cook you and eat you, because they're ogres" (147). But the girl does not have time to leave; she hides behind a barrel and actually witnesses another bride chopped up and devoured. However, as the ogres chop, the victim's ring finger flies off into our heroine's lap. After returning home, she waits in silence at the wedding feast, then finally tells her experience at her groom's request, beginning with the line copied for use as an epigraph and interrupting her story with remarks that "My darling, it was only a dream," until she draws out the ringed finger -- and reveals the whole "dream" as "reality."
Although Atwood eventually discards references to the tale, this "subground" material has important implications for understanding her purposes in writing, as well as her changing vision of the relationship between literature and "reality." The epigraph suggests, in a condensed fashion, quite a self-conscious relationship between fiction and the "real world." It suggests, in fact, that while Bodily Harm has all the appearance of "fiction" or "dream," that it has a very close relationship to non-fiction, or reality. As a miniature of Bodily Harm, the girl's story at the wedding feast parades itself as "fiction" yet is about the most gruesome reality. Since the girl saves her own life by telling her tale, the reference to the story further implies that telling tales may be a way of saving lives.
Ultimately, because it is a fairy tale, the gory story of the dismembered and devoured female body implies that this is an archetypal or universal women's story, relevant to Rennie Wilford's life on several levels -- and that it is also about the lives of real women. The idea of being eaten becomes in the novel a real disease, cancer, which strikes one of every ten women. But the fairy tale also figuratively displaces the young girl's unease about marriage onto the image of the chopped-up bride whose finger she catches. Thus the tale is relevant to the mental state of Rennie Wilford, who is tormented by her fears of marriage and men, as well as her uncertainty about her life and future.
I would add one further reading to the title "Robber Bridegroom." The novel suggests that the Caribbean country Rennie visits is the "girl" who is in danger of being consumed by the "robber bridegrooms," the ogres United States and Canada. The murder of the only two able political candidates, clearly "triggered" in several ways by foreign intervention, is all too typical of Western Hemisphere politics, in which the weaker nations are divided and devoured by the stronger, richer nations. Bodily Harm makes it clear that the "massive involvement" of the U.S. and Canada in the Caribbean is a type of cannibalism.
The numerous epigraphs Atwood considered usefully illumine the philosophical context out of which Bodily Harm evolved. Several of the draft epigraphs function to frame the quite explicit politics of the book, in which Atwood seems to be pondering the relationship between art and politics, picking out quotations from other artists about literature as a tool for depicting "reality," rather than escaping that reality.
The longest and perhaps most striking is an excerpt from "The School Globe" by James Reaney, a Canadian poet. Here is the epigraph:
. . . if someone in authority
Were here, I'd say
Give me this old world back
Whose husk I clasp
And I'll give you in exchange
The great sad real one
Not with a child's remembered and pleasant skies
But with blood, pus, horror, death, stepmothers,
and lies. (Box 33, "Rope Quartet")
Bodily Harm does indeed turn out to be filled with "blood, pus, horror, death, stepmothers, and lies," in spite of the attempt of the heroine to stick to "a child's remembered and pleasant skies." In fact, just as "The School Globe" traces the journey from the innocent childhood idea of the globe to the adult's bitter revision of that myth, the plot of the novel is clearly the journey from an innocent (albeit cynical) idea of a writer's situation in the world to a revision of the myth that one can ever be isolated from responsibility. The idea that if one opens up the world, one will discover blood and pus reminds us that Rennie's cancer makes her wonder about her malignant interior: "Her real fear, irrational but a fear, is that the scar will come undone in the water, split open like a faulty zipper, and she will turn inside out" (80).
Two other draft epigraphs emphasize the fact that the horrors in Bodily Harm are deliberate, essential to the story. From Pablo Neruda's "The Heroes" comes "This story is horrifying; if you have suffered from it, forgive me, but I'm not sorry" (Box 33, "Rope Quartet"). Again, the Flannery O'Connor epigraph serves to justify the text's strident politics: "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally" (Box 33, "Rope Quartet,").
Another draft epigraph relates to the cancer surgery which Rennie undergoes; it may be read at both political and aesthetic levels. Richard Selzer, in Mortal Lessons, writes about the effort "to search for some meaning in the ritual of surgery, which is at once murderous, painful, healing, and full of love" (Box 33, "Rope Quartet"). This epigraph says a great deal about why Atwood placed Rennie's cancer and subsequent surgery as a central image in the novel. Yet I read this line as a political statement as well, signifying that "cancerous" politics needs to be opened up, to be "exposed" surgically. Then, too, the epigraph may imply that writing, like surgery and like revolutionary politics, is "murderous, painful, healing, and full of love" -- and that it sometimes has to be murderous and painful in order to accomplish the healing and the love.
Although Margaret Atwood eventually discarded those arresting epigraphs, the ideas remain as part of the conversation, the dialogue of the novel. They highlight Atwood's self-consciousness as she moves her fiction toward a much more explicit articulation of the politics of sexual relations and the reality of the horrors of politics on an international level. Whereas Atwood's previous four novels had all been centered on female/male relationships, Bodily Harm goes much further. Jake is the most sadistic "lover" of all these novels, and the pornography exhibit which Rennie encounters is perhaps as "horrifying," as Neruda phrases it, as any scene in her novels. In order to indicate the push in Bodily Harm toward a more graphic portrayal of the horrors of sexual politics and of political power used against oppressed people, I will use two scenes which have been revised in the drafts. The first is the "climax" to the pornography exhibit Rennie is supposed to cover for Visor magazine. Atwood adds more detail to the description of a film clip in order to heighten the impact of the scene. The underlined material has been added:
This is our grand final, the policeman said. The picture showed a woman's pelvis, just the pelvis and the tops of the thighs. The woman was black. The legs were slightly apart; the usual hair, the usual swollen pinkish purple showed between them; nothing was moving. Then something small and grey and wet appeared, poking out from between the legs. It was the head of a rat. (210, changes from Box 33, "Rope Quartet")
The additions increase the contrast between the "usual" and the disgusting, but also suggest that Rennie is by now inured, immune to "usual" pornography, so that it takes something truly repugnant to move her. Atwood's addition of "and wet" also implies that the rat is a replacement for a child, that instead of a child's head emerging (in a birth scene), a rat crawls out. One might assume that this kind of horrible "baby" is what this kind of world delivers (a theme played out in The Handmaid's Tale); one might assume that the rat has been eating the woman's organs -- so that she is dead inside; or one might assume that the rat had devoured a child. Or, and this is just as perverse, the image may suggest that a woman's vagina has the devouring characteristics of a rat.
The significance of this scene increases when one considers the color of the woman. Even when Atwood is clearly concentrating on the subject of artistic/male exploitation of women's bodies, the international and racial dimension of human exploitation is also suggested. The woman is the color of exploited groups of women in North America and the color of many Caribbean people. And the fact that the woman's interior may have been devoured connects those forms of exploitation to Rennie's "internal" devouring cancer. The major powers are destroying third-world countries, gnawing away at them (like the rat) from the inside. Thus, in one paragraph, all three themes of the text are captured in one image -- an image which forces Rennie to vomit on the policeman's shoes.
In a similar scene, Rennie reads murder mysteries as she waits for Paul, Prince, Dr. Minnow and Marsdon to work out an election compromise. Again, the descriptions work as a satire, not on contemporary art, as in the pornography exhibit, but on contemporary writing. Yet Atwood's vivid description in this revised passage serves to move beyond satire to an overt indictment of literary male fantasies about women. Again the additions are underlined:
[Rennie] is not doing too well with the murderers, but she's eighty percent on the victims: two blondes with pale translucent skin, mouths like red gashes and swelling breasts bursting through their dresses, two tempestuous redheads with eyes of green smouldering fire and skin like clotted cream, each carefully arranged on floor or bed like a still life, not quite naked, clothing disheveled to suggest rape, though there was no rape in the forties, finger-marks livid around the throat--they loved livid--or a wound still oozing, preferably in the left breast. Dead but not molested. The private eyes finding them (two hot tempered Irishmen, one Greek, two plain Americans) describe each detail of the body fully, lushly, as if running their tongues over it; all that flesh, totally helpless because totally dead. (246 and Box 33, "Rope Quartet" 308)
An even more scathing remark has been edited out: "she cannot quite understand why dead female bodies should inspire lust--, but they appear to, maybe it's [all that flesh, totally helpless because totally dead] ." While Rennie is reading these mysteries, the men of St. Agathe are in the front room debating what to do about the election results, a debate that will end in discord, violence and eventually the death of at least two political leaders.
Here again Atwood's image of the devoured female body works at a number of levels. First, she critiques the ultimate male writing -- the detective genre -- as participating in the voyeuristic dismemberment and devouring ("as if running their tongues over it") of female bodies. Yet as I noted earlier, Atwood both imitates and critiques the thriller genre, which is the detective story played out on the international map.
This passage is like a critical (as opposed to a commercial) break in the middle of her exciting plot about a rigged election, soon to become a mini-revolution, then a C.I.A.-abetted crackdown. Suddenly we are reminded of the formulaic nature of the thriller/detective genres. Rennie doesn't read a particular novel; she reads quantities of mysteries, until the characters all blend together: the private eyes, the victims, the murderers. What this passage implies (foreshadowing Rennie and Lora's incarceration) is the generic quality of the female victim. Although we know that current thrillers are not as sexist as Atwood implies, she does summarize the trend within "forties" paperbacks; the role for women is never murderer or detective but rape victim (here Rennie names what is unspoken in the genre), dead body, object of lust, ultimate victim.
The addition of the "wound still oozing, preferably in the left breast" helps us to connect the rape, torture and killing of female victims to Rennie's own situation, in which male doctors amputate women's bodies, often cutting more than necessary. We begin to wonder: Who has the cancer?
This scene is particularly significant in that it describes the sexual politics ideologically inscribed in our culture by our "literature" as a scene set against the background noise of outside (C.I.A., U.S. and imperial intervention) control of a third world country. By implication and metonymic association, Atwood is revealing that neither C.I.A. intervention in Latin American politics nor current sexual politics is an isolated issue, that they are part of the same system of power. As another unused epigraph says: "We have to see how issues of power invade every aspect of every relationship in a society that worships it" (Box 33, "Rope Quartet," quotation from Mother Jones).
The politics of international power is also reworked and rethought in the drafts. An important example of Atwood's revision of the political material is Rennie's discussion in the Chinese restaurant with Dr. Minnow. Atwood added material to her earlier versions, such as this comment by Dr. Minnow that "If you were a political journalist the government would not have been happy to see you" (134 and Box 33, "Rope Quartet" 153). Similar additions are Dr. Minnow's comments about Papa Doc (the dictator of Haiti) and Rennie's sarcastic retort to him when he brings up the CIA: "The CIA has been done to death; surely by now it's a joke" (135 and Box 33, "Rope Quartet" 153). Dr. Minnow's analysis of the important geographic position of his little country on the route of oil tankers is also added. A later example is the addition of a reference to United States involvement in Latin American revolution. Lora says that "sometimes Dr. Minnow takes the CIA agents out to lunch and tells them all this stuff about what the United States should be doing to avoid a revolution, and they write it all down and send it off, it keeps them busy" (181 and Box 33, "Rope Quartet" 208, added material underlined).
In short, although Bodily Harm is structured as fragmented stories told in a conversation between two women, two political prisoners, about the events of their lives which brought them to prison, it is also finally grounded in a sweeping indictment of United States foreign policy as well as of the holding of political prisoners by any regime. Although this political cast was evident even in the very early drafts, the novel became more specific and pointed in its political agenda, as Atwood substantiated and critiqued the very real (non-fictional) interference of the United States government in Latin American politics. While politics provided the ambiance for Life Before Man, Bodily Harm is a tale of politics first and personal interaction second.
Almost as significant, it seems to me, is the change in Atwood's theory of the relationship between art and the world which is made clear by the unpublished material. While her first novel (The Edible Woman) was not particularly conscious of the role of the writer and of her relationship to her public, Surfacing, her second novel, works as a particularly powerful effort to re-cover or re-invent a truly Canadian literature. Her third novel, Lady Oracle, plays in quite sophisticated ways with the issue of popular culture, with the fact that writers of popular books give themselves up to be "devoured" or "consumed" by the public. In the drafts and the interstices of Life Before Man, we can see Atwood's growing commitment to designing her art so that it also speaks to the urgent political issues of our time, but Bodily Harm clearly stands as a sign of her new understanding of the political implications of her writing. The horrifying dystopic extrapolations of The Handmaid's Tale and the terrorist killing in Cat's Eye continue to address these themes, forcing the reader to ask, as did Annette, Atwood's first travel writer: "Am I one of them or not?" Tourist or terrorist?
In unused material from the last page of the book, Rennie redefines her role as a writer. She is seeing into a future, seeing herself getting out of prison. The government official tells her that they thought she was a subversive. Here Atwood had written after the word "subversive": "to see things they do not want seen and tell things they do not want told. She was not one before, but now she is" (Box 33, "Rope Quartet," underlined material deleted).
1Lucy M. Freibert makes a similar argument, when describing The Handmaid's Tale as "no departure from Atwood's system" (280). She agrees with Sherrill Grace that "Atwood's vision has not essentially changed, but has expanded and deepened" (280). Freibert uses an Atwood definition, that "the political to me is a part of life. It's part of everybody's life" (280). Freibert also quotes Atwood saying "But the first thing we mean is how is this individual in society? How do the forces of society interact withthis person?" (280). I fully agree with Freibert's analysis and believe that the research materials and drafts show that Atwood's political interest has extended even further than to Freibert's examples: The Circle Game, The Edible Woman, Power Politics and Bodily Harm.
2I gratefully acknowledge the inspiration of Sharon Wilson for her study, "Turning Life into Popular Art: Bodily Harm's Life-Tourist." Wilson's argument concentrates on the fascinating topic of "camera images, including photographs, commerical and non-commerical art, movies, television programs, filmstrips and mental pictures as symbols of seeing and being seen in the world" (136), but what seemed most interesting to me was the idea of the heroine as "tourist."
3The idea of the toy, of the essential frivolity of the rubber boat survivors, was emphasized in a draft of the television script in which Atwood suggested that the concluding shot might be a pan back and away to reveal that the entire incident took place in Lake Ontario or even in Toronto Harbour (Box 41, "A Rubber Boat" 4).
4For a similar argument about the line between the human and the non-human, see Atwood's performance poem about Bigfoot, called "Sasquatch" (1969).
5Lesje's story traces a trajectory somewhat similar to that of Nate, as she loses her compelling imaginative world (her Mesozoic imaginings are literally "lost" to her). In the last paragraphs of her last section, she struggles to re-immerse herself in her dinosaur visions, "But she can't do it. Either she's lost faith or she's too tired" (286).
6Cathy N. and Arnold E. Davidson suggest that Nate's support of Quebec separatism is linked to his own personal life, to his evolving, and difficult, separation from Elizabeth. Writing before Bodily Harm was published, the Davidsons ask the intriguing question: "From [Nate's ] political awareness and efforts at reform to narcissistic exercises in self-realization to disillusioned acquiescence to what was once called The System: one wonders, what comes next?" (213).
7Bodily Harm has been scrutinized and explicated by many able critics (Smith, Stovel, Howells, Jones, Irvine, Carrington, Hansen). Some have emphasized the imagery of hands which literally holds the scattered text together (Rubenstein's argument is particularly fine), while others have pointed to the imagery of vision (seeing, eyes, voyeurism, non-participation) which again serves to link the "jigsaw puzzle" piece of narration and to define the purposes of the text. Roberta Rubenstein has most forcefully connected the heroine's cancer to the pornographic images and to the political statement of the book: "[through the horror [of ] the abusive and sadistic torture of prisoners by policemen and guards . . . is the violence of pornography linked with the pornography of violence; both are society's cancerous growths" ("Pandora's" 132).
8Elaine Tuttle Hansen makes the sophisticated and persuasive argument that if "such narratives of personal experience make sense and raise consciousness, they do so only as they are shared and connected, and as they thus interrupt and shatter a paralyzing self-absorption. Through conversation individual experience may be situated in the collective context that makes those socially recognized and recognizable patterns in and through which the individual is constructed and reconnected to the world" (13).