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Love and Anxiety in the Early Postmodern World of Margaret Atwood’s Dancing Girls

Jennifer MURRAY


Cet article se propose d’analyser le recueil de nouvelles Dancing Girls de Margaret Atwood (1977) par le biais de la thématique de l’angoisse ; de la crainte pour soi-même, l’angoisse évolue dans ces nouvelles vers d’autres formes d’angoisse liées à des questions d’éthique et au rapport aux autres. Une lecture minutieuse de plusieurs nouvelles permet de mettre en lumière une logique d’ensemble : l’angoisse qu’explore Atwood est étroitement liée aux relations entre les hommes et femmes à la période des années 60 et 70, où, malgré les promesses de libération sexuelle et féminine, un sentiment latent de vide, ressenti comme l’imminence d’un danger, pouvait être perceptible. Ce ressenti prend forme dans les nouvelles de Dancing Girls à travers des fantasmes de violence ou de victimisation, ainsi que des images associées au gothique et à la figure du double.

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  • 1  Anxiety is a recurrent term in Beryl Donaldson Langer’s article, “Class and Gender in Margaret Atw (...)

1Dancing Girls, the first published collection of short stories by Margaret Atwood,bears a surprisingly joyful title for a series of narratives shot through with anxiety and fear, with images of death, deformity, lifelessness and contained rage. It contrasts singularly with the titles of the individual stories which speak of hostilities (“The War in the Bathroom”), of confinement (“Under Glass”), of misperception of the other (“The Man from Mars”), of death (“The Grave of the Famous Poet”), of sexual violence (“Rape Fantasies”) and of undefined menace (“When it Happens”). Moreover, the dancing girls in question are never actually seen, and are most probably, in the opinion of the title story’s central character named Ann, “just some whores from Scollay Square” (224). In fact, the elusive dancing girls take on fantasy status, not least of all for the main character: they appear fleetingly in her mind as a swirl of colour, an exotic possibility of joy and mystery, the repressed of what her own, orderly, well-planned life excludes. Along with the final story, “Giving Birth,” “Dancing Girls” offers the tentative vision of a harmonious world, or at least, a world which is not entirely one of exclusion, negligence, indifference, and the threat of violence. Most of the stories, however, depict male-female relationships hollowed out by miscommunication and misrecognition. To that extent, they express the anxiety of existence of the specifically the North American context of the 1960s and 1970s, a period of intense and often contradictory drives towards women’s liberation and sexual liberation. To a large extent, these short stories explore that contradiction, as women and men stumble through a world of postmodern uncertainty, unable to name their needs and desires, let alone the world they live in1. Anxiety is therefore a strong undercurrent in this collection and my purpose here will be to explore the variations on, and the forms of representation of, this theme of anxiety, primarily in its connection to male-female love relationships, but also in the ways it extends into other contexts of social interaction.

Verging on dissolution

  • 2  Female-male relationships had already undergone incisive scrutiny in Atwood’s first novel, The Edi (...)

2The main characters in these stories are, for the most part, introspective female characters who are dissatisfied in some fundamental, existential way; their dissatisfaction is related to the difficulty of sustaining love relationships2, and more generally, to the complexity of simply being a caring person. They live in a “‘postmodern life-world’ – a world of surfaces where identity is reduced to image, relationships are transient, pasts are vague and futures uncertain” (Donaldson 75). Most of the stories open in the crisis phase of a human drama, when the anxiety of impending catastrophe has already coloured the emotional structures of the characters. The catastrophe may be the end of a relationship, the fear of being alone or of being trapped in an alienating lifestyle. According to Freud, anxiety is similar to fear, but is distinguishable from it in that it has a quality of “indefiniteness and lack of object”; moreover, it is linked to an “expectation” of “helplessness” in connection with “the danger of the loss of an object,” an object in which the ego has invested its libido (On Pyschopathology 325-331).We will therefore be attentive to questions of how anxiety signals the presence of an emotional danger, how it is bound up in the imaginary identifications of love relationships, but also, of how it may signal the impending breakdown of order, the imminence of an encounter with the Real, that order of existence over which we have no control.

3Very often, the anxiety in question can be located in a recurrent type of phrase wherein the female character expresses an undefined impression of instability, invisibility, or emptiness that is related to the body: “A Travel Piece,” for example, begins with the sentence: “Annette is wiped right out” (136); this is reiterated more directly when Annette announces, “Sometimes I feel I’m not alive” (139). In “The Grave of the Famous Poet” the protagonist affirms: "In the mirror I'm oddly swollen, as though I've been drowned” (88). Yet another story, “Under Glass,” begins with the following words: “I’m feeling better. For once the sky is out, there’s a breeze […] the trees come solidly up through the earth as though they belong there, nothing wavers” (65). The adjective ‘better’ and the qualifying term ‘for once’ signal that this moment of relative stability is a reprieve in the narrator’s existence. Her underlying fragility is projected onto the world around her through the defamiliarizing effects of language, wherein, rather than the usual ‘sun’ being out, it is the sky itself which is strangely named here; the taken-for-granted solidity of trees is remarked upon as unusual through the analogical “as though.” The unshakeable sun and the solidity of trees appear suspect to the narrator, accustomed as she has become to a world of instability, a world which will flood the narrating consciousness at the end of the story: “The outlines are slipping again, it’s an effort to press the sidewalk down, it billows under my feet like a mattress” (76).

4Where does this anxiety come from? On the level of plot, it is often related to the intuition on the part of the central character that the love relationship she is in is hollow, on the verge of dissolution. As the expectation of loss of love sets in, the characters’ relationship to the world registers in experiential terms the fear of finding oneself alone in a meaningless world, faced with the void of meaningless materiality, threatened with the anxiety of becoming nothing, a “scrap of the real,” a “leftover... without any support in the symbolic order” (Zizek, 25). To be done with this anxiety, the narrator of “Under Glass” fantasizes about achieving this state of nothingness where she will be free of fear, anxiety, desire:

  • 3  A similar image is at work in “Lives of the Poets”: “She had begun to have the feeling that nothin (...)

... the 7-B greenhouse. Soon I will be there; inside are the plants that have taught themselves to look like stones. I think of them; they grow silently, hiding in dry soil, minor events, little zeros, containing nothing but themselves; no food value, to the eye soothing and round, then suddenly nowhere. I wonder how long it takes, how they do it. (77)3

  • 4 Atwood studied Victorian Gothic authors at Harvard in the mid-1960s and published her postmodern Go (...)

5Yet, before arriving at this desire for self-obliteration or other forms of dead-end, there is, in these female characters, the manifestation of a desire for rescue, wherein the body becomes the metaphorical site of both hurt and possible healing: earlier in “Under Glass,” the narrator says, “my legs ripple as though I’ve just gotten myself out of a wheelchair” (66). This is a paradoxical image of physical ailment coupled with the hope of recovery. Similarly, in “Lives of the Poets,” Julia has a bleeding nose, and sees “herself on a stretcher,” with the ambulance waiting, a fantasy of helplessness which allows her to envisage being saved: indeed, she imagines herself subsequently “waking up, safe and cured, with [her boyfriend] Bernie sitting beside the bed. He would smile at her, he would kiss her forehead, he would tell her—what? Some magical thing” (196). The magical words of love, however, are not pronounced, not even in the fantasy world, and the confirmation of her boyfriend’s infidelity falls close on the heels of this dream of being ‘saved.’ There is very little discrepancy between the texture and tone of Atwood’s writing at this point in the 60s and 70s and David Punter’s affirmation that “contemporary Gothic is obsessed by notion of the ‘cure’ and similarly committed to ways of invalidating them” (158).Helen Meyers emphasizes the specifically female aspect of this structure of desire : “In the strand of the late-twentieth–century female Gothic ... , the passively feminine woman who expects a man to save her is, most likely [doomed]. Relatedly, the heroic capabilities of men are undercut or altogether destroyed” (23)4.

6Indeed, many of the stories play (ironically for the most part) on the Gothic elements of male stalking, deformity, confinement, doubles or masks, blood loss, and female victimization. The association of blood loss and female victimization is reinforced by the imaginary constructions of male partners who are often perceived as seductive, blood-sucking vampires, “doomed and restless as Dracula” (“Hair Jewellery” 108). This Dracula figure reappears in “The Grave of the Famous Poet”: “He kisses me, teeth digging into my lower lip; when it hurts too much, I pull away. We lie side by side, both suffering from unrequited love” (83). While men of the 60s and 70s may have been attracted to the new models of liberty, sexual freedom and soul-searching manifest in the writing of such authors as Jack Kerouac, this was an essentially sexist vision in which the woman remained in the role of the nurturing, often interchangeable other. At the same time, women were beginning to look for ways out of that one-dimensional role, of gaining access to the freedom of the age, but without abandoning, without being able to abandon, the Cinderella complex and its attendant desire to be rescued (from loneliness, from boredom, from domesticity) by the prince. However, as Meyers points out, texts such as Atwood’s “consistently demonstrate that romantic ideology ─ the belief that heterosexual romance constitutes the key to female identity and security ─ constructs women as victims” (23).

7The story which best encodes the contradictory predicament of female attraction for the fiend ( for a certain proximity with violence and death) and a simultaneous desire to save or be saved is “Rape Fantasies,” a story whose title offers the traditional Gothic promise of “vicarious wish fulfilment through fantasies of incest, rape, murder, parricide, social disorder. Like pornography, [Gothic fiction] functioned to supply an object of desire, to imagine social and sexual transgression” (Jackson, 175). In “Rape Fantasies,” the naïve narrator runs through a series of imagined rape situations where the violence of real rape is always deflected and transformed into compassion, sharing and healing:

The most touching [fantasy] I have is when the fellow grabs my arm and I say, sad and kind of dignified, ‘You’d be raping a corpse.’ That pulls him up short and I explain that I’ve just found out I have leukaemia and the doctors have only given me a few months to live. The rapist too, it turns out, has leukaemia, ... it’s spring and sort of misty, … we’re happy we’ve found the only other person in the world who can understand what we’re going through. (101)

8The fantasy sees the couple spending their last months alive together. Death and dying allow for the drama of the extreme, but the underlying wish is for simple recognition and tenderness: “we just sort of look at each other and our hands touch” (101). In the world of emotional detachment which Dancing Girls depicts, this vision of uncomplicated mutual acceptance might be where the real social and sexual ‘transgression’ lies. Atwood plays a double game, ironically undercutting the power of the narrator’s fantasies by making them ‘safe,’ even as she reinserts an element of uncertainty in the ending of the story, when the reader realizes that the narrator has been telling her fantasies to a male stranger in a bar.

Words as weapons

9In the emotional struggles being carried out, the female characters portrayed are not, themselves, devoid of aggressive impulses. Although this hostility is at times turned against themselves in suicide fantasies, it most often finds expression as resentment and anger against their partner, whether in the form of a simple metaphor, as in “Under Glass”: “I look at him; he’s hurting all right, but I need my mouthful of flesh, I need back some of that blood” (75), or, elsewhere, as murder fantasy, as when, in “The Grave of the Famous Poet,” the narrator looks at her sleeping lover and thinks “maybe I should kill him, that’s a novel idea, how melodramatic; nevertheless I look around the room for a blunt instrument” (87). Most strikingly perhaps, is the metaphorical fantasy of the touring poet in “Lives of the Poets”; this story is an example of a relatively recent development of the Gothic genre involving a “Gothic body whose lines are etched and stretched in blood, the unstoppable blood which contaminates everything and [...] suffuses the entire outer world” (Punter 157).

10This effect is at work in “Lives of the Poets”: the main character, whose thoughts and feelings are rendered through free indirect discourse, has been suffering from psychosomatic nosebleed in her hotel room while on a poetry tour; images of death and blood colour her thoughts as she gradually allows the reality of her disintegrating relationship to surface near the level of consciousness. Then, on the verge of leaving her hotel room to deliver a poetry reading, she phones her boyfriend and discovers his infidelity when his new lover answers the phone. The nosebleed, which has been kept separate in her mind from her concerns about her couple, suddenly fills her mental horizon, taking shape as the uncontrollable manifestation of the “violation” she feels to have suffered. Stunned and angered, the protagonist projects her fury onto her immediate future, which allows for the prophetic use of the modal ‘will’: she imagines herself travelling to the conference by car, where “She will watch the snow coming at the windshield […], and it will be red, it will be like a solid red wall. A violation, this is what she hates, they had promised never to lie” (207). Blood smears the visible horizon, and then moves inward: “Stomach full of blood, head full of blood, burning red, she can feel it at last, this rage that has been going on for a long time, energy, words swarming behind her eyes like spring bees. Something is hungry, something is coiling itself” (207). In this image, the passively connoted female body and its menstrual prospects have been overtakenby the active principle figured as a phallic “coiling” snake-like entity; blood, rage, energy, and the potential for attack are figured as a vital force within the nameless character. Her anger at her lover’s betrayal continues its metonymic movement from the self onto the environment of the car she will soon step into, and then onto the fiction of her polite academic self: “She will step across the stage, words coiled, she will open her mouth and the room will explode in blood” (207). The symbolic dimension of Gothic blood undergoes a shift here: not the blood of female death (the transgressive fantasy of male domination), but blood as the “language” of female anger: the protagonist imagines herself ‘screaming bloody murder’ even at the risk of it being the murder of her (social) self.

11 “Words coiled” and ready to strike, words “hurled” (90), words held back to avoid “speaking the unforgivable” (74); the stories in this collection speak of words as weapons, of language that has lost the capacity to speak of love, or suggests, perhaps, that the words of love have been drained of their meaning. One voice says: “We love each other, that’s true whatever it means, but we aren’t good at it” (84). In “Under Glass” the narrator strives to give form to her intuition about what ‘love’ means: “I want to tell him now what no one’s ever taught him, how two people who love each other behave, how they avoid damaging each other, but I’m not sure I know” (75). No certainties are affirmed here, there is only a questioning which arises from dissatisfaction; the female position expressed is not one of knowledge and definite solutions, but of a recognition of emotional distress, and a desire to refuse the destructiveness of radical insensitivity.

  • 5  This emphasis on the language of words as the unavoidable site of emotional exchange is a recurren (...)

12Throughout these stories that speak of the problems of reconciling love and sexual freedom, language is foregrounded as the only way forward, even when it is fantasized as a backward movement as in “Hair Jewellery”: “Things would get better, time would reverse itself, they would talk, she would tell him how much she had missed him […], silence would open, language would flow again” (204). In “Under Glass,” the possibility of comprehensible exchange, even at the most basic level, is clutched at as a sign that all is not lost: as the narrator leaves her boyfriend and goes into the subway, she comments: “I go down the stairs to the ticket window. My hands function, exchanging round silver disks for oblong paper. That this can be done, that everyone knows what it means, there may be a chance.” Here, as in an earlier example, the writing defamiliarizes ordinary perception, so that coins become “round silver disks” and subway tickets become “oblongs”; in this way the process of naming and the construction of meaning might be begun again, new significations might be offered and understood: “If we could do that: I would give him a pebble, a flower, he would understand, he would translate exactly. He would reply, he would give me… ” (76-77). But, again, as elsewhere, the narrative voice trails off, unable to fill in the blank5.

Ethics in a vacuous world

13The examples considered above are from stories where the sexual-love relationship is the central preoccupation and it is characterized by a pervading sense of vulnerability and deterioration. In other stories in the collection, a similar sense of emptiness is expressed, often as a fear of something undefined and menacing which produces an alienation effect in the main character; in “A Travel Piece,” Annette experiences the vacuity of life as a lack of visual depth, seeing the ocean as surface only,

like a giant screen flat and with pictures painted on it to create the illusion of solidity. If you walked up to it and kicked it, it would tear and your foot would go right through, into another space which Annette could only visualize as darkness, a night in which something she did not want to look at was hiding. (138)

14This image of the sea as a giant illusory screen locates this story within the specific expressions of anxiety related to the postmodern period: for Zizek,

the fundamental ambiguity of the image in postmodernism [lies in the fact that] it is a kind of barrier enabling the subject to maintain distance from the Real, protecting him/her against its irruption, yet its very obtrusive “hyperrealism” evokes the nausea of the Real. (149)

15Here, the screenlike surface of the sea protects Annette, a travel guide on a business trip to explore yet another tourist destination, from the menacing ‘something’ lurking in the ‘depths’, a metonymic displacement for her unconscious guilt related to her work, to her professional transformation of reality into “tacky ritual[s] put on for the tourists, [...] for those who make the lives of others their transient spectacle and pleasure” (150).

16In a world perceived as consisting in deceptive surfaces, “reality is supplanted by an image of itself,” and consequently, “individuals [...] lose the character of agents, embedded in social reality, and are reduced to external observers of the spectacle” (Zizek, 149). In the story in question, even when Annette’s plane crashes, she remains distanced from the event; an impression of amusement park unreality persists as Annette collects packets of peanuts before going down the giant slide from the plane into a waiting lifeboat: at the top of the slide, Annette comments: “From a distance, the scene looks delightful, with the orange circles twirling on the sea like wading pools filled with happy children” (142). Once she is comfortably installed in the lifeboat, “Annette is bored. For a moment she thought something real had happened to her but there is no danger here, it is as safe in this lifeboat as everywhere else… ” (145). Only after two days have gone by and the few supplies have been exhausted does Annette begin to suspect that something human is at stake. In a scene which parodies certain aspects of The Lord of the Flies, the people in the lifeboat, wearing plastic-tray masks, and wearing lipstick smeared over their faces in lieu of sun cream, are confronted with a choice: whether or not to slit the throat of a dying occupant of the lifeboat so as to drink his blood and ensure their survival, at the cost of their humanity. Annette looks around at the masked others and the delirious victim-to-be and summarizes the situation:

they are going to slit his throat, like that pig on the beach in Mexico, and for once she does not find it quaint and unusual […]. She is […] stuck in the present, with four Martians and one madman waiting for her to say something. So this is what goes on behind her back, so this is what it means to be alive, she’s sorry she wondered. But the sky is not flat any more, it’s bluer than ever and recedes away from her, clear but unfocused. The quality of the light has not changed. Am I one of them or not? (150)

  • 6  Atwood was particularly interested in symbolic cannibalism in her early writing period, as her fir (...)

17Life has finally taken on depth and complexity for Annette, so that surfaces give way to perspective, and Annette can enter the realm of feeling and responsibility. Here, Atwood caricatures and exaggerates reality so as to be able to raise a fundamental question about our responsibility as human beings. Is it legitimate, is it ethical, is it humanly satisfying to ‘consume’ others, not literally, as is suggested here but through our exploitation of other cultures as tourists of their lives, with little awareness of who they are, what their culture involves, or what the material conditions of their survival entail?6

  • 7  Five years before the publication of Dancing Girls, Atwood had posited ‘survival’ as the defining (...)
  • 8  See Margaret Atwood, Strange Things; The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, and in particula (...)

18The material, but also the spiritual conditions of survival are a central preoccupation in the story “Polarities.”7 Morrison, an American scholar, is living in a remote Canadian city, having obtained a job as a teacher. Detached, laid back, not wanting to get involved, he lives as an autonomous isolated unit. Canada, in the form of Louise, a woman of French-English origins dressed in a bear fur coat, will lead him to the brink of awareness of his “chill interior” (58). In this story, Atwood plays on the stereotypes of becoming ‘bushed’ by nature, a Canadian term which means going mad and returning to a wild state, sometimes being transformed into a menacing nature monster, the Wendigo, who devours others8 Louise does go mad, but she is not a devouring figure. Rather, in the madness that leads her to want at all costs to create a protective mystic circle, she is trying to save Morrison, herself, and everyone, from the overwhelming forces of nature, of the encroaching cold and frost, which is the externalized reflection of the cold within. Having participated in the capture and caging of Louise, who is locked up in an asylum, Morrison reflects on the bric-a-brac furnishings of Louise’s apartment:

Poor Louise had been trying to construct herself out of the other people she had met. Only from himself had she taken nothing; thinking of his chill interior, embryonic and blighted, he realized it had nothing for her to take. (58)

  • 9  This is an interesting reversal of the image seen earlier in a fantasy where blood, as symbolic an (...)

19Transforming herself into a Canadian mosaic, Louise symbolically recognizes the fact that others are an intrinsic part of the self. Morrison’s semi-awareness of what Louise ‘knows’ begins to transform him: specific others, to whom he had previously given no thought, suddenly surface to the level of his consciousness, even as the landscape moves in to freeze him over with “sinister fingers of blown snow” and as he imagines yet more “snow rising up, sweeping down in great curves, in waves over the city” (63)9. In the midst of this vision, he sees that others were struggling, in minute and valiant ways against this coldness of the heart: he thinks of his “Korean neighbours’ fishes fluttering on the clothesline like defiant silver flags, [of] the lady downstairs shrilling “Whispering Hope” off-key into the blizzard, … [and of] the landlady holding aloft torchlike her bar of soap stuck with artificial flowers” (63). What had seemed to Morrison like so many kitsch customs and tasteless art forms take on new significance: those around him were striving to “remain human” by hanging onto the symbolic dimension of life. By contrast, Morrison has spent his time in his apartment painting over the artwork left by the Nigerian tenants who preceded him, those images of “black trees on a warm orange wall” (63) which he has steadfastly been covering with coatings of white paint, symbolically snowing himself in.

 “Tiny stitches of private magic”: the figure of the foreigner

20Despite the ironic, disillusioned tone that characterizes many of these stories, the cynicism they embody is to do with a descriptive phase of observation of the world around oneself: for Atwood, literature starts from where you are: “Writing, … tends to concentrate … on life, not as it ought to be, but as it is, as the writer feels it, experiences it. Writers are eye-witnesses, I-witnesses” (“On Being” 203). Her work therefore repeatedly encodes, without endorsing, the “the need to immunize the self against feeling” in a culture, “the culture of advanced capitalism... which demonstrably fails to meet human needs” (Donaldson 80). But Atwood’s work also points in the direction of secret hopes, and the author weaves in her tiny stitches of “private magic” (“The Red Shirt” Poems 50) to ward off the wicked fairy godmothers. In the collection Dancing Girls, the figure of the foreigner is one such secret motif. Indeed, the foreigner is constantly in the background or on the outskirts of the narratives, appearing in one of three forms: as an unconscious double; as the exploited other of Western greed and indifference, or as a promise and a possibility. Whether present as the foreign student of indefinite age from an undefined warring Eastern country in “The Man from Mars,” as any of the foreign tenants surrounding the characters in their rented flats (“Polarities,” for example), as the invisible inhabitants of the countries through which western tourists are guided and amused (“The Resplendent Quetzal”), or as the fantasized Arabian dancing girls, the figure of the foreigner is never completely pushed out of sight, yet never entirely in view. This is literally the case in “Giving Birth” where a strangely appearing and disappearing woman accompanies the main character, Jeannie, on her journey towards childbirth.

  • 10  “I dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” is a song, written in 1854, the first line of which (...)

21“Giving Birth” is developed from an atypical narrating perspective: it begins with a first-person narrator, the unnamed mother of a young child, reflecting on birth and language. Her daughter does not yet know how to talk: “I am waiting for her first word: surely it will be miraculous, something that has never yet been said. But if so, perhaps she’s already said it and I, in my entrapment, my addiction to the usual, have not heard it” (228). Sensing, perhaps, that the autobiographical stance of the first-person narrator may become another form of entrapment, (Atwood’s daughter was born in 1976) the author takes precautions with her narrating perspective; she shifts writerly authority onto her narrator who declares, “Now [my daughter]’s having her nap and I am writing this story” (228); this allows Atwood to create a story-within-the story and an intermediary character, a “she” around whom the realistic experience of having a baby may be explored, with elements of the fantastic woven in. The fantasy element is foretold in the choice of the name given to the main character: she is called Jeannie, “after the song”10 says the narrator; so Jeannie is a dream and is conjured into existence, like the genie out of the lamp.

22As Jeannie prepares for childbirth, attending prenatal classes and making her way to the maternity ward, she is aware of the presence of another woman who is often close by her, a woman who does not speak her language, who has a kerchief tied over her hair, who did not want to be pregnant, who may or may not have been raped, whose pregnancy may be putting either her life or the child’s at risk, who will have no choice of whether or not to have an anesthetic during childbirth... The woman “appeared by turns as a young girl of perhaps twenty to an older woman of forty or forty-five, but there was never a doubt in Jeannie’s mind that it was the same woman”; at the same time “[she] is aware that the woman is not really there: Jeannie is not crazy” (233). The persistent blending of realism and fantasy which characterizes this story, including the use of the figure of the unreal other, points towards an unconscious projection of fear, or in other words, towards the uncanny. Jackson notes that Freud reads “the uncanny as the effect of projecting unconscious desires and fears into the environment and on to other people’” (64). In this way, the familiar environment becomes infused with a strangeness produced by this projection of the repressed; this strangeness may take the form of an “angel, devil, ghost, or monster” (66), or here, in Jeannie’s story, of a foreign, ageless, endangered double. By this token, the unfamiliar woman is “a relational signifier” which “asserts a gap where one would like to be assured of unity” (Cixous, quoted in Jackson, 68). The gap in unity, or the breach in certainty, is, in this instance, the fear which necessarily accompanies pregnancy and childbirth.

23Indeed, the ‘other woman’ in “Giving Birth” represents the dark side of maternity ─ not only the physical risk which accompanies the process, but also maternity under other more structurally hazardous conditions than in a caring relationship where the child is desired by its parents. By telling the story of Jeannie’s experience, miraculous in the most ordinary way, and keeping in view, through the figure of the foreign woman, the knowledge, generally repressed in dominant narratives of Western cultural, of the fearful conditions under which female sexuality is often experienced, the story links the responsibility of becoming a parent to the responsibility of being human, of caring about others. In spite of the mysterious, unexplained appearance and disappearance of the figure of this woman in the story, the main character does not feel threatened by her, but rather, concerned: “Jeannie isn’t exactly afraid of this woman. She is afraid for her” (234). ‘Fear of’ becomes ‘fear for.’ This shift in direction, from self to other-directedness, signals Jeannie’s movement into an awareness of the need to tend to the world, and to each other.

24The story’s ending offers a moment of poetic vision of the earth: Jeannie, the new mother, looks out the window of her maternity ward room and sees a building, imaginatively transforming it to pick up on an earlier image, that of the spilling forth of the amniotic fluid at the touch of the doctor’s finger:

But as she looks at the building, she sees that it’s made of water. Water, and some tenuous jellylike substance. Light flows through it from behind (the sun is coming up), the building is so thin, so fragile, that it quivers in the slight dawn wind. Jeannie sees that if the building is this way (a touch could destroy it, a ripple of the earth, why has no one noticed, guarded it against accidents?) then the rest of the world must be like this too, the entire earth, the rocks, people, trees, everything needs to be protected, cared for, tended. The enormity of this task defeats her; she will never be up to it, and what will happen then? (242)

25This reworking of the image of the membrane surrounding the foetus transfers both the dangers of childbirth and the care needed by the newborn child, to the world at large. This perception of the surrounding reality as inherently fragile is, according to Zizek, the “reverse” side of the postmodern perception of the world as hyperreal surface; the postmodern subject expresses a “hypersensitivity to reality as something that can be hurt [...] and is aware of how every encroachment upon the world, even the most benevolent, cuts into the world, hurts it” (149). Sensing the underlying fragility of the “world” in all its complexity, recognizing her implication in its well-being, and acknowledging her inadequacy (the inherent inadequacy of any individual) to protect ‘life,’ Jeannie’s awareness moves the narrative beyond the mode of paranoid fantasy: the image of the fragile world links a story of being born into motherhood to a sense of being born into love and responsibility for humanity. It is an ethical move which concludes Atwood’s first collection of short stories.

26Rather than narratives of resolution, the stories in Dancing Girls propose tales of emotional crises. As such, they do not put an end to the anxiety of the central characters; in fact, the anticipated catastrophe does not generally occur, or from another point of view, one might say that the state of anxiety is, in itself, constitutive of the catastrophe. This anxiety is often left active at the end of the stories, suggesting a universe of impending or immanent loss. Without suggesting that the stories move forward in a regular and unwavering advancement, there is nonetheless a form of progression in the configuration of anxiety, proceeding from very personal, paranoid worlds, as in “The War in the Bathroom” where the main voice manifests itself in the form of a radical division between body and mind, to more complex, other-directed, concerns around which anxiety comes to circle.Indeed, in the subsequent stories, self and other continue to do battle but no longer within a single character: lovers, neighbours, colleagues, struggle with their fear of openness to each other, endeavour to find the words, the symbols and the gestures to keep the ‘sidewalks from billowing’ (“Under Glass”), the ‘endless night from descending’ (“Polarities”), space from ‘scrolling itself up and vanishing’ (“Grave of the Famous Poet”), ghosts from haunting the cellars (“Hair Jewellery”), and to prevent “that man in the green gown and the mask, under the glass bubble, [from] raising [his] knife” (“Training” 193).

27If the usual Gothic figures – the foreigner, the other, the stalker, the diseased or deformed – all find their way into these stories, Atwood gradually displaces their function and transforms their traditional symbolic role from that of an externalized site of projection of inner terrors, to incarnations of alternative possibilities: rather than suggesting that the terror is ‘out there’ and the answer within (courage, self-reliance, unconscious resources), in these stories, the terror is already within (fear of emotional solitude, absence of symbolic place in society, paucity of human relationships) and, most often, potential ways forward are mediated, suggested, or glimpsed through the figures on the margins, either of the stories, or of the character’s sphere of values. These ‘others’ remain symbolic entities more than fully formed characters; the fantasized foreign woman in “Giving Birth” is just such a messenger: her presence in the final story does not suggest that danger has disappeared, but this impression of menace no longer threatens the integrity of the self; rather, it concerns the self to the extent that the self includes the other. The ‘other’ woman therefore accompanies a shift from a view of the world as a hostile, loveless, and superficial place, to a sense of other-directedness which reinvests the world with depth and complexity, and opens it, through language, to creative reinventions.

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ATWOOD, Margaret. Dancing Girls. 1977. New York: Anchor, 1998.

---. The Edible Woman. 1969. London: Virago, 1992.

---. Lady Oracle. 1976. London: Virago, 1982.

---. “On Being a Woman Writer,” Second Words. Toronto: Anansi, 1982.

---. “Power Politics”(1971), Poems, 1965-1975. London: Virago, 1991.

---. “A Red Shirt,” Poems 1976-1986. [1987]. London: Virago, 1992.

---. Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

---. Surfacing. [1987]. London: Virago, 1992.

---. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.

DOLTO, Françoise, Sexualité féminine : la libido génitale et son destin féminin. Paris : Gallimard, 1996.

DONALDSON Langer, Beryl. “Class and Gender in Margaret Atwood's Fiction.” Australian-Canadian Studies (1988) 73-101.

FREUD, Sigmund. “Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety,”(1926) On Psychopathology. Trans. James Strachey. London: Penguin, 1979.

---. “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” (1914) On Metapsychology. Trans. James Strachey. London: Penguin, 1984.

JACKSON, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Methuen, 1981.

MEYERS, Helen. Femicidal Fears: Narratives of the Female Gothic Experience. New York: State of New York Press, 2001.

PUNTER, David. The Literature of Terror: Volume 2, The Modern Gothic. London: Longman, 1996.

ZIZEK, Slavoj. Enjoy Your Symptom: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. 1992. London: Routledge, 2008.

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1  Anxiety is a recurrent term in Beryl Donaldson Langer’s article, “Class and Gender in Margaret Atwood’s Fiction,” which offers a convincing socio-economic backdrop to the fictions of Dancing Girls. Langer puts forward the notion that Atwood’s fictions are situated in the socio-historical space of the ‘new class’ – a “derivative class of salaried mental workers” situated in “a contradictory location between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.”... “The institutional milieu of the ‘new class’ is typically bureaucratic, characterized by asymmetrical relations of power and control and the pursuit of goals which may be irrational, absurd, or even immoral when viewed from the universalistic position of the ‘culture of critical discourse.’ The situation of the ‘new class’ is thus fraught with anxiety, ambivalence, and absurdity” (74).

2  Female-male relationships had already undergone incisive scrutiny in Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman (1968) and in her 1971 collection of poetry, Power Politics.

3  A similar image is at work in “Lives of the Poets”: “She had begun to have the feeling that nothing was waiting for her outside the bed’s edge. Not emptiness but nothing, the zero with legs in the arithmetic book” (199). Here the ‘nothing’ness is not a state which is desired, but a threat from without, waiting for her: again, the confrontation with the void.
From a psychoanalytical perspective, this conjuncture between sexuality and ‘nothingness’ is pointed out in Muriel Djéribi-Valentin’s preface to Françoise Dolto’s Sexualité Féminine: « ‘Le coït est bien l’acte surréaliste au sens plein du terme, une déréalisation marquant la perte pour l’homme et la femme de leur commune et complémentaire référence au phallus.’ C’est cette perte commune qui permet l’ouverture du champ poétique de la rencontre entre un homme et une femme. Elle remet en lui, dans ce moment, tout ce qui du phallisme provient des stades prégénitaux, frôlant toujours ce danger qui constitue le risque féminin par excellence dans la rencontre amoureuse, celui de se sentir ‘devenir rien’. C’est ce qui, plus que l’homme, la rend sensible à la valorisation narcissique qu’elle reçoit de lui après l’orgasme, celle lui reconnaissant la valeur du don qu’elle fait de son sexe qui s’associe, inconsciemment pour elle, à la perte de sa valeur. (36)

4 Atwood studied Victorian Gothic authors at Harvard in the mid-1960s and published her postmodern Gothic novel, Lady Oracle, in 1976, a year before the publication of Dancing Girls.

5  This emphasis on the language of words as the unavoidable site of emotional exchange is a recurrent feature of Atwood’s early work: in the final pages of Surfacing (1972), after a regressive attempt to integrate wordless ‘Nature’, the narrator considers the consequences of a return to civilization and to her complicated relationship with her boyfriend, Joe: “If I go with him we will have to talk...for us it’s necessary, the intercession of words; and we will probably fail, sooner or later, more or less painfully” (186). Atwood’s position on language at this point in her writing is ambiguous: language is “necessary,” but this necessity is not connoted in hopeful terms.

6  Atwood was particularly interested in symbolic cannibalism in her early writing period, as her first published novel The Edible Woman attests.

7  Five years before the publication of Dancing Girls, Atwood had posited ‘survival’ as the defining characteristic of Canadian national identity in Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.

8  See Margaret Atwood, Strange Things; The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, and in particular, chapter three: “Eyes of Blood, Heart of Ice: The Wendigo.” (62-86).

9  This is an interesting reversal of the image seen earlier in a fantasy where blood, as symbolic anger, floods the visible environment, colouring the snow on the windscreen red. Here it is the snow which is the imagined invasive force, metaphorically representing the frozen heart of the male protagonist.

10  “I dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” is a song, written in 1854, the first line of which belongs to popular culture; it inspired the 1960s television series I Dream of Jeannie where the Jeannie in question was indeed a genie from a bottle.

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Jennifer MURRAY, « Love and Anxiety in the Early Postmodern World of Margaret Atwood’s Dancing Girls »E-rea [En ligne], 8.1 | 2010, mis en ligne le 21 septembre 2010, consulté le 08 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Jennifer MURRAY

Université de Franche-Comté
Jennifer Murray est maitre de conférences à l’Université de Franche-Comté ou elle enseigne la littérature nord-américaine. Son domaine de recherche est d’abord celui de la littérature canadienne, et elle a publié des articles sur les ouvrages de Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence et Michael Ondaatje ; la littérature du sud des Etats-Unis (Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers) fait également partie de son champ de recherche. Elle s’intéresse plus particulièrement à la forme de la nouvelle, notamment les nouvelles écrites par des femmes.
Jennifer Murray is associate professor at the University of Franche-Comté where she teaches North American literature. Her research is primarily focused on Canadian literature; she has published articles on the works of Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence and Michael Ondaatje. Literature from the American South (Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers) also falls within Murray’s research interests. The short story form, and in particular, short stories written by women, provides a further focalizing element to her work.

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