Discussion of Chapter Two
From a literary and linguistic point of view, much less happens in this chapter than in the first. This is hardly surprising as, having now established much of her technique and, through this, her main character, Atwood necessarily focuses more on plot development.
The Narrator expresses relief as she leaves her companions in a bar and wanders off on her own to investigate the town in which she grew up. Her main concerns are with how the place has changed, and with the etiquette of the area as she remembers it (continuing from the previous chapter). She is looking for, and locates, ‘Paul’ – a local man trusted by her father and the one who has written to inform her of her father’s disappearance. By the end of the chapter she decides that her own investigation may yield better results than those of the police and locals, so she resolves to go down to the lake.
The most interesting feature of this chapter, I think, is the style of narration, which really comes into its own here. Stream of consciousness is one name for it, although strictly speaking a ‘stream of consciousness’ is more random than this is. What gives it the characteristics of a stream of consciousness are the various interruptions to the main line of thought: the narrator often has flashbacks to other places, people, feelings triggered by experiences as she walks around the vicinity. Two particular occasions are worth mentioning in terms of plot development.
The Narrator pauses to lean on a railing beside the river and, on hearing the noise of the water, has a flashback to one of her first memories – lying in the bottom of her parents’ canoe as they navigated out of the danger of some rapids (11). This is important as a first memory because it provides us with our first sense that the Narrator once felt loved and protected, that she was not always the defensive, distrusting individual that she has become. The sense of ‘togetherness’ attached to this flashback is also relevant to her identity; she is separated from her friends by this memory, each of whom ‘disowned their parents long ago’.
The second flashback occasion is more subtle, more confusing, and more easily missed on a first reading. Her husband ‘intrudes’ into her mind – not for the first time, we are led to believe.
‘But Madame doesn’t mention [Narrator’s home life], she lifts another cube of sugar from the tray by her side and he intrudes, across from me, a coffee shop… He peels the advertisement paper from the sugar and lets one cube fall…’ (17)
What makes this a mark of the stream of consciousness is the association of sugar in the present with a moment involving sugar in the past. It is quite clever writing on Atwood’s part as it shows us a snippet of the Narrator’s vulnerability without deviating from her inherent self-absorption (which is brilliant, because it is her self-absorption which is deceiving her). We are returned just as easily to the original scene with the dismissive ‘I don’t have time for him, I switch problems’ (18), which hints at a darker parallel to her current concern. Importantly she does not allude to the destruction of her child: if Madame asks, she will say that she ‘left him in the city’. It becomes apparent that at this point in the story she herself does actually believe this, even though it isn’t strictly true. This plan for avoidance of Madame’s questions, therefore, might also be emblematic of her fear of being judged on her past actions. ‘Madame’ represents for her the pinnacle of a ‘moral order’ and is also it seems the last living association the Narrator has with her mother. There would be no convincing answer if she were charged by either of these women with neglect of her duties as a woman.
The Narrator’s flashbacks, therefore, flesh her out for us as an individual with a history and feelings, even if they might in fact be deceptions.
I have so far not mentioned the scene of the hospital as remembered by the Narrator. I don’t consider this so much a ‘flashback’ due to its length. It would seem to be a considered memory, revisited often. It is worth noting here that the Narrator did not attend her mother’s funeral, and that her mother wrote no personal notes in her diary, so there is a tangible emotional distance between mother and daughter.
Paul, however, is the most important feature of this chapter. Where his wife is the only link the Narrator has with her deceased mother, Paul is now the only link to her father – and that conjures up a real issue. The two men, representing alternate civilizations, used to exchange gifts on visits with one another and once spent three weeks together in a tent during a rain storm. There is a significant bond between them and the Narrator does not underestimate the connection: her father is a god, and Paul is his high priest.
This last assumption would seem to be a throwaway line, a cliché; but unfortunately nothing is ever that simple and a good case can in fact be made for suspecting that this is how the Narrator views the situation. Before admitting the Narrator to his enclosure (note the ‘borders’ theme once again), Paul ‘clasps his hands in front of him like a priest or a porcelain mandarin’. This is not a chance gesture that the Narrator observes, and it is her use of the simile that gives her away – she, after all, is the one making the association. If you answered the study questions at the end of the previous chapter, you may have observed that her father is seen as a man very much in control of the environment which he inhabits, be he behind the wheel of a car, or failing to stop ‘them’ building a new road, it is irrationally assumed that he has power, control. It follows on in this chapter that her father is in control of his disappearance and will, in time, make himself known to all. The Narrator is guided (and blinded) by this faith in her father-god, and this is why the simile that she applies to Paul is so striking, though she doesn’t believe he’s doing a very efficient job of it.
And if there were any doubt at this point, one might also observe that Paul’s house has ‘a pointed structure like a church spire’ (13).
To the students
2. The Techniques
Parataxis as Metaphor
3. The Tensions
Language as theme
Garden vs. Wilderness
4. Chapter Discussions
5. The Other Characters
6. Wider Reading