Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

The Bluebeard Syndrome in Atwood's Lady Oracle: Fear and Femininity

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

The Bluebeard Syndrome in Atwood's Lady Oracle: Fear and Femininity

Article excerpt

Why is there such a wide readership for books that essentially say, "Your husband is trying to kill you"? People aren't interested in pop culture books out of some pure random selection. They connect with something real in people's lives.

Margaret Atwood to Karla Hammond, July 1978

Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle (1976) is rich in variations on established literary forms and conventions. For its overall formal structure, Atwood draws on the Kunstlerroman ("artist-novel"), a subgenre of the Bildungsroman, which traces the education and growth of a gifted hero from childhood to maturity. However, in portraying the development of a young artist who is not only female but also Canadian, Atwood at once departs from the traditionally maleand Euro-centered generic model. The story of Joan Delacourt Foster further plays with, and against, additional traditions.1 It is a life (and work) composed of many disparate parts.

Among the literary precedents evoked in Lady Oracle, two distinct yet interrelated types of narrative serve as an especially fecund source for the predicaments and ironies that shape the protagonist's bildung: first, Bluebeard tales (such as Charles Perrault's "Blue Beard" and the Grimms' "Pitcher's Bird"), in which serially monogamous men murder their wives and, generally, get away with it;2 and second, gothic romances and their parodie counterparts (such as Jane Austens Northanger Abbey), in which heroines overcome an ominous environment, innumerable obstacles, and menacing strangers in order to find happiness in the embrace of a handsome, strong, nurturing, and oftentimes wealthy man. Ostensibly, tales of the first type do not easily fit into the popular romance tradition. "The problematic, marginal status of this tale," Stephen Benson writes, "is a potentially disruptive presence in the romance narrative, suggesting a failed marriage and a genuinely beastly male nature" (107). Nevertheless, several basic elements link the gothic variety of romance fiction with the Bluebeard story. Like a concurrence of symptoms, these elements form a pattern-the Bluebeard syndrome-in which four stereotypical characters tend to appear.3 The two pivotal roles are a persecuted young woman and a mysterious, possibly dangerous man. He is invariably evil in the Bluebeard tales and is sometimes evil-a "Shadow-Male"-and sometimes good-a "Super-Male"-in the gothic.4 The two optional roles are a helper or rescuer figure and a mad, bad, or very unlucky wife. As Atwood remarked in a 1976 interview shortly after the publication of Lady Oracle, "one of the perils of Gothic thinking is that . . . you have a scenario in your head which involves certain roles" (Struthers 64).

Additional elements in this scenario include tonality or atmosphere (mainly horror and terror followed by exultation in more traditional plots, or shame and embarrassment in parodie versions),5 setting (a gloomy mansion, castle, abbey, etc.), and a sequence of prohibition/transgression involving a secret room or comparable enclosure (the "forbidden chamber" motif). Perhaps most remarkable is the insistence of this latter component: a prohibited inner space. From Perrault's "Blue Beard" (1697) to Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries ofUdolpho (1794) to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847) and, as shall be seen, to Atwood's Lady Oracle, knowledge of what that space contains replaces innocence and poses a threat to the heroine's pursuit of happiness.6 Her very life is, or seems to be, at risk.

The Bluebeard syndrome in Lady Oracle occurs on different narrative levels. First, at several intervals throughout the main story, Joan works on the manuscript of a gothic romance that unfolds together with, and is embedded in, the romance or, more exactly, romances of her life; second, she also recalls excerpts from her previously published books abounding in lavish period detail and diction; third, like Stephen Dedalus composing his villanelle in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joan evokes the process of writing a poem of high-flown passion and intensity whose title (borrowed from or by the book in which she appears) is Lady Oracle. …

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