Scene, Symbol, Subversion: The Evolving Uses of Mapping in Margaret Atwood's Fiction

By Shechels, Theodore F.; Sweeney, Kathleen Mackin | American Review of Canadian Studies, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Scene, Symbol, Subversion: The Evolving Uses of Mapping in Margaret Atwood's Fiction


Shechels, Theodore F., Sweeney, Kathleen Mackin, American Review of Canadian Studies


In several of her novels, Margaret Atwood offers a clear picture of Toronto. That picture is so accurate that, when the Modern Language Association met in Toronto in 1997, The Margaret Atwood Society could sponsor a walking tour of the city guided by the text of Cat's Eye (1989). Whether the novel is the early The Edible Woman (1969) or the later The Robber Bride (1993), this geographical precision is present throughout the fiction. Atwood, however, gradually moves beyond the simple provision of accurately rendered scenes; she uses mapped places in Toronto metaphorically in the novels that intervene between The Edible Woman and The Robber Bride. More importantly, she grasps the oppressive quality of mapping and acts subversively toward city maps and other maps in the latter novel. Atwood's literal and metaphorical uses of mapped places require some explication, the purpose of this essay. Most particularly, The Robber Bride requires both more contextualization in contemporary thinking about mapping and more ex planation, because in it Atwood subverts mapping as an imaginative construct. This essay will therefore stress both that critical context at its onset and that specific text after it surveys the less subversive uses of mapping in novels from The Edible Woman to Cat's Eye.

Theories of Mapping

Mapping has recently attracted a great deal of attention--so much so that we cannot, in the few pages we have, survey the many theoretical treatments of it. Instead, we will look at five very different treatments: one that considers mapping literally; two that consider mapping metaphorically but in the very different contexts of technoscience and women's autobiography; and two that consider mapping as an important concern in Canadian literature. Although the five proceed from different assumptions and along different courses, what they say about mapping coalesces into a theoretical position that premises our work on Atwood and especially on The Robber Bride.

Rose Gillian's Feminism and Geography (1993) surveys several attempts to reform what she terms the masculinist practice of geography. The subdiscipline of Time Geography acknowledges that there are social spaces beyond the spaces that meet the eye, the ones that geography traditionally privileges. The subdiscipline of Human Geography goes further and tries to incorporate in mappings "broader social power relations" (44). It also rejects scientific rationality, undermines dualism, recovers emotion, and calls for reflexivity by the geographer. Feminist Geography finds much of value in both of these reforms of traditional practice, especially in the latter. Even these reforms, however, privilege the male gaze, one that identifies the land to be mapped with the horizontally reclining female body. Feminist geography, then, must replace this male gaze with a female perspective. That perspective foregrounds networks of interaction. The resulting "feminist maps are multiple and intersecting, and they require...intric ate skills in cartography" (155).

Gillian's study deals with the academic practice of geography, and it deals with literal maps. Donna J. Haraway's Modest Witness @ Second Millennium (1997) brings together, as its subtitle notes, Feminism and Technoscience. It deals extensively with maps that are figures but deny their status as such, hiding behind the aura of technoscience. A good example is the human genome project, which claims to offer a map of the human body. Like many other maps, this one seems neutral but, once the figure is recognized as such, it becomes apparent how the illusion of objectivity is used to obscure controversial aspects of the project. Like other projects embarked upon for economic reasons, this project hides those very reasons behind the mapping metaphor. Haraway reproduces and analyzes an advertisement for DNA-cutting enzymes by New England Bio Labs that promotes the project as a whole. The advertisement is titled "Mapping the Human Genome" and it features a nude female draped in a form-fitting map of the world with t he only continent visible being Africa. …

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Scene, Symbol, Subversion: The Evolving Uses of Mapping in Margaret Atwood's Fiction
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