Hope against Hopelessness: Margaret Atwood’s Life Before Man



But as we all know, especially if we have read more than a little of Margaret Atwood’s poetry or prose, there is a problem about language. Inherently duplicitous, seductively manipulable, it is still, however, the only medium the writer has with which to tell the truth — even if that truth be that there is no one, stable, universal truth to tell.2 As the narrator of ‘Giving Birth’ suggests, language is acutely paradoxical, both trapping us in and releasing us from whatever ‘tar sands’ into which we’ve chanced to stumble. Literary language demands from both writer and reader a curious mix of naivety and complicity. In one sense, we cannot help but write or read a text ‘as if’ language were utterly tractable and transparent, and the fictive world created by language were a mirror held up to the world outside the book. And yet from literature we demand a richer, heightened, stronger use of language than we’re accustomed to find in daily life; and we want the fictive world that language creates to be meaningful and coherent in ways that our own world can never be. And finally, we want both judgement and absolution from the novels we read. We understand that fiction can show us things about ourselves, our world and our condition therein to which we’d previously been blind; and yet we also know that if the text tells us things we do not wish or cannot bear to hear, we can dismiss it: after all, it’s ‘just a book’, something made and, by corollary, made up.


Black Hole Bodily Harm Fictive World Creative Imagination York Time Book Review 
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  1. 4.
    Linda Hutcheon, The Canadian Postmodern: A Study of Contemporary English-Canadian Fiction (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1988) pp. 10–11.Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    Geoff Hancock, Canadian Writers at Work: Interviews with Geoff Hancock (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987) p. 285.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    Quoted by Sherrill Grace, Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood, ed. Ken Norris (Montreal: Vehicule, 1980) p. 90.Google Scholar
  4. 25.
    Frank Davey’s reservations, stated in Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics (Vancouver: Talon, 1984) are relevant hereGoogle Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1994

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