Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Margaret Atwood's Art of Brevity: Metaphorical Conceptualization and Short Story Writing

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Margaret Atwood's Art of Brevity: Metaphorical Conceptualization and Short Story Writing

Article excerpt

A survey of the reception of Margaret Atwood's poetry clearly demonstrates that since the beginning of her literary career she has been commended for the originality of her metaphors. The strikingly innovative metaphorical usage in her early novels has also provided the basis for much speculative comment, particularly about her choice of a central metaphor as a technical device around which to structure The Edible Woman (1969) and about the clusters of metaphors emphasizing the themes of Surfacing (1972), Lady Oracle (1976) and Bodily Harm (1981). Furthermore, recent critical discussions of her later novels have underscored how Atwood displays a pervasive tendency to frame her basic insights in metaphorical terms. The majority of her short stories, however, have received little scholarly scrutiny in this respect, even though they contain excellent examples of her subversive use of metaphorical conceptualization.1

Taking into account that Atwood's short fiction has already been studied from a variety of theoretical viewpoints, I will examine her collections Dancing Girls (1977), Bluebeard's Egg (1983), Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems (1983), Wilderness Tips (1991), Good Bones (1992), The Tent (2006) and Moral Disorder and Other Stories (2006) to show how she has exploited the narrative potential of metaphorical expression while challenging the conventions of the short story genre.2

In her introduction to The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories, Atwood noted that several of the writers featured in the volume, including George Bowering and Matt Cohen, had "experimented with techniques that draw attention to the artificiality of art".3 Although she did not add her name to the list, we can safely suppose that when she made this remark about their work, she also had in mind and was implicitly alluding to her own postmodernist methods of storytelling. Indeed, one of the most outstanding features of her short fiction is the use of easily noticeable procedures to expose the fictional illusion and underscore the overtly metafictional nature of her self-reflexive texts. Some of her devices, specifically designed to enhance the reader's awareness of literariness and to stimulate closer inspection of her short stories as artifacts, are related to the metaphorical strategies she deploys, not only by fashioning highly ingenious metaphors and similes but also by discussing figurative language in her fictional writings.

Atwood incorporates critical commentary on metaphor in the structure of many of her short stories, thus openly inviting her readers both to ponder on the trope from a theoretical perspective and to observe how it works in practice within her fictional discourse.4 This kind of integrated commentary is expressed through occasional brief explanatory notes in her early short fiction, but becomes more frequent and elaborated in her later works, as the number of direct metafictional references increases.

One of the earliest examples of Atwood's use of the word "metaphor" or its cognates is to be found in "Polarities", initially published in 1971 and later collected in her first volume of short fiction, Dancing Girls (1977). Morrison, the male protagonist and focalizer of this narrative, reflects on the factors that have brought about Louise's nervous breakdown. While revising her notebooks, he concludes: "She's taken as real what the rest of us pretend is only metaphorical."5 In an interview held thirty years after the publication of "Polarities", Atwood explained the characterization of Laura in her novel The Blind Assassin (2000) by pointing to a mental condition ("probably a mild form of autism") that makes it difficult for some people to handle metaphor, since they tend to be literalists.6 Louise and Laura share the same type of disorder, which isolates them from external reality and causes them to dwell instead in a realm of fancy. This phenomenon has been identified by Charles May in his article "Metaphoric Motivation in Short Fiction" as an experience that Poe and Melville, respectively, wrote about in "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Bartleby the Scrivener", two stories in which "characters have transformed themselves into aesthetic objects by means of metaphoric projection": both Usher and Bartleby "make the metaphoric mistake of projecting their own subjectivity onto the external world and then responding to it as if it were external". …

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