Exteriorizing the Interior – Diseased Minds, Diseased Bodies: Illness as a Trope in Margaret Atwood’s Bodily Harm
Dr. Sangeetha Puthiyedath is an Assistant Professor with the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India. She is deeply interested in the question of education and has explored methods of alternate education for a number of years. Her Ph.D Dissertation was on Interiority and the Dialogic elements in the novels of Margaret Atwood. She has presented a number of papers both in India and outside India. Currently she is engaged in a research project involving language and religious studies. Her other interest are language and culture, religion and rituals, gender studies, and ecocriticism.
The distance between the straightjacketing imposed on women by society and their aspirations is a recurring theme in Margaret Atwood. Her protagonists, alienated from themselves as well as society have a complex and troubled relationship with their own bodies. A woman’s body, is presented by Atwood as heavily inscribed by culture. Compelled to constantly measure and judge herself against the proscription that deny acceptance to a woman’s body if it does not conform to male determined precepts of beauty, the body becomes an important intermediary in a woman’s dialogue with society and a tool with which she negotiates her relationship with the outside society. In Atwood’s novel Bodily Harm the protagonist RennieWilford is diagnosed with cancer and has to undergo a mastectomy. Her cut off left breast questions her identity as a woman and forces a rethink about her subjectivity and her identity as a woman. The threat to her identity is not merely mounted by a society which insists on reducing women to erogenous zones. It is also because of the narrative that places specific diseases like tuberculosis, cancer and AIDS within the context of religious rhetoric of sin and punishment. However, Atwood refuses to lay the blame entirely on society and its patriarchal conventions. My thesis is that Rennie’s disease is in fact, as an exterior manifestation of an inner malady.
Keywords: Atwood, identity, interiority, body, mastectomy, beauty myth, violence, gender.
Margaret Atwood’s Bodily Harm strives to capture the life of a young woman, RennieWilford, struggling with the emotional trauma post her mastectomy.Atwood presents her as a woman who leads an existence that is as superficial as the “lifestyle magazines” that she writes for. Reenie is rudely shaken out of her complacency and equable existence when she is diagnosed with breast cancer. The cataclysmic impact of the diagnosis and the ensuing mastectomy goes beyond the physical scars left on the body but challenges the very conception of Rennie’s subjectivity and forces her to reexamine her priorities, her relationship with men and the world in general. A diagnosis of cancer, one of the scourges of twentieth century, with its associations of suffering and death would have been a terrible blow to Rennie, a young woman in her twenties. But, worse still for her, is the cure prescribed – a mastectomy. As a woman living in a society that insists on reducing the female to the confines of the body, particularly to her erogenous zones, the operation has a direct impact on Rennie’s perception of herself as a desirable woman. Her cut off left breast questions her identity as a woman and forces a rethink about her subjectivity and her position in society. This paper seeks to explore the use of cancer by Atwood as a trope to interrogate the malaise that has beset society and by extension, the individual.
Bodily Harm is a text that explores the multifarious threats faced by a woman, both external and internal. In the course of the novel Rennie has to confront multiple psychological challenges as well as physical threats mounted by voyeurs and perverts, an abusive boyfriend, policemen and jailors. Rennie proves to be ill-equipped to confront these interrogations. Disguised in the garb of a travel narrative, with a love story thrown in for good measure, Atwood’s Bodily Harm brutally parodies travel romance. Rennie’s escape to a Caribbean island after her surgery and her break-up with her live-in boyfriend Jake, does not provide her with any escape from her predicament. Instead, she finds herself on the other side of a symbolic mirror where the dangers she faced in Canada are not only present, but intensified manifold.
Rennie’s life before her diagnosis of cancer is a constant battle with superficiality, both acknowledged and unacknowledged. She is confused and lives a life devoid of self-reflexivity. This is reflected in her attitude to men.She accepts them uncritically but appears to be afraid of any commitment. Her placid, insulated existence is punctured when she is diagnosed with cancer. It could have been a moment of reckoning, and self-reflexivity. Instead she trivializes it by falling in love with her doctor. Fiona Tolan observes that for Rennie, her diagnosis of cancer should have functioned as a brutal encounter with reality. But she dodges the issue by casting her physician in the role of ‘god’ and savior and choosing to fall in love with him. Even Rennie is aware of the absurdity of the situation:“Falling in love with your doctor is something that middle-aged women did, women in the soaps, women in nurse novels and sex-and-scalpel epics” (Atwood 33). However, her obsession with her doctor opens her eyes to the reality of her relationship with Jake, her live-in partner. Rennie’s emergent understanding of the position she occupies for Jake first expresses itself as discomfiture with his collection of vaguely disturbing photographs of stylised women. Rennie is troubled by these pictures, “especially when she was lying on their bed with no clothes on” (Atwood 105). “It is the objectification of these women, and by extension, her own objectification, that Rennie is unconsciously troubled by,” observes Tolan. Rennie is cognizant of her objectification and she tells Jake “Sometimes I feel like a blank sheet of paper. . . . For you to doodle on” (Atwood 104). Universalizing Rennie’s experience and locating it within the framework of patriarchy, Brooks J Bouson remarks: “As a blank sheet of paper, Rennie’s body becomes a cultural text on which Jake inscribes the narrative of male desire” (115).
Rennie’s choice of profession and her unquestioning acceptance of it mirror her attitude towards men. She uncritically accepts the viewpoint of her male editor when he blandly tells her that antipornography feminists miss “the element of playfulness” in pornography, and asks her to write an article on “pornography as an art form”as a response to the “antiporno pieces in the more radical women’s magazines”(Atwood 208). Rennie’s initial reaction to pornography is “properly” detached and what she considers “sophisticated.” So when she comes across a male artist who uses life-sized mannequins of naked women to make table and chair sculptures, she is unable to recognize the violence involved in those sculptures and tries to shrug off the extreme objectification of women in pornography in general.Her response to the pornographic videos that she views at the police station is equally dictated by what society considers sophisticated and proper: “There were a couple of sex-and-death pieces, women being strangled or bludgeoned or having their nipples cut off by men dressed up as Nazis, but Rennie felt it couldn’t possibly be real, it was all done with ketchup” (210). Her nonchalance and deliberate distancing is shaken only when she sees the “grand finale.” Watching a rat emerging from a woman’s vagina in the police video Rennie is suddenly confronted by “a large gap” in what she has been accustomed “to thinking of as reality” (Atwood 210). Jake her live-in partner and his sado-sexual fantasies, which he enacts on her body, suddenly acquire a sinister meaning and she is able to recognise it as a part of the larger objectification of women. After watching the video Rennie has trouble “dismissing” Jake’s sadistic sex as a mere game. And although an outraged Jake protests saying “Come on, don’t confuse me with that sick stuff. You think I’m some kind of a pervert?” (212), he fails to convince her.
Atwood’s political statements often come packed in humour, which lends it a critical self-reflexivity. She presents Jake, Rennie’s partner as a professional packager – one who is only interested in the outer covering. Bouson is right when she says, “In the sexual economy of their relationship, Jake is the packager aptly, he is a designer of packages by profession and Rennie the product” (115). Rennie, conditioned by her desire to please, allows Jake not only to redo her apartment but even to refashion her. His pictures of women, foregrounding the body, leaving the face, covered or receding in the background is a pointer to the manner in which he sees them. For him they are mere objects, their subjectivity totally undermined by their status as bodies. The subtext of his “inventive” sexual games is the potential violence that can be enacted on the female body; a potential that is brutally realized on Lora’s body by the prison guards. When Jake tells Rennie, “Pretend I just came through the window. Pretend you’re being raped” (Atwood 117) or climbs up the fire escape pretending to be a “lurker” or sends her “obscene letters composed of words snipped from newspapers, purporting to be from crazy men” (27) he is enacting out a fantasy of power and violence. Although Rennie has a dim insight into the power games Jake indulges in, Jake likes “thinking of sex as something he could win at,” she disregards her instinct: “He would never do it if it was real, if she really was a beautiful stranger or a slave girl or whatever it was he wanted her to pretend. So she didn’t have to be afraid of him” (207).
Rennie’s attempts to convince herself that Jake is not actually violent in spite of evidence to the contrary, results in her giving mixed signals to the reader. Atwood peppers the text with clues that point to the psychological subordination he subjects Rennie to, yet she chooses to remain impervious to it. Her sense of being and selfhood is subjected to severe challenge by his objectification of her and it is hardly surprising that their relationship cannot withstand the interrogation of her body by the cancerous cells and the scar it leaves behind. The pornographic clips with depictions of sadistic mutilation of the female body which Rennie dismisses as acts done with “ketchup” is actually realized on her body in the form of a mastectomy. “Deliberately the text associates Rennie’s breast surgery, which is described as a phallic-sadistic act that causes a severe narcissistic wound, with the violent attacks enacted on the female body in particular on eroticized body parts like the female breast in sadomasochistic pornography,” observes Bouson (118).
The duplication and parodying of disparate events by Atwood heightens reader awareness and offers a critical commentary that appears to be embedded in the text. Cancer is presented not merely as a disease but as a powerful trope for the multi-pronged threat posed by the society to female bodily integrity.It can be viewed as a symbol of the disease that has beset society. The reduction of women into sexual objects and the threat of violence that she has to live with are contended with here. The bodily harm that Rennie has to face is not merely from Jake, but multiple men. Jake’s actions are diabolically mirrored in the coiled rope left by a real intruder who breaks into Rennie’s apartment. The forced entry of the policemen into her house and the discovery of the rope on her bed terrifies her. The violation of her private space and the implied but unarticulated charge that she “invited” it upon herself plays out the dominant narrative that women are responsible for the violence perpetrated upon their bodies. The unseen intruder, who leaves a menacingly coiled rope on Rennie’s bed, foreshadows the intruder who later enters her hotel room in St. Antoine and rips open the parcel under the bed. The two policemen who chase away the intruder from her house is likewise mirrored in the two policemen who later arrest her at St Antoine.
Intruders who threaten her bodily integrity from without is duplicated in cancer which intrudes from within. In using cancer as a symbol for the threat that women face Atwood is drawing on the accepted notion of cancer as an invasive disease that evokes fear and horror. Cancer is viewed as an attack on the body and its associated terminology draws heavily from warfare1, observes Sontag in her seminal work Illness as Metaphor. Rennie views her disease as a betrayal by her body. The invasive nature of the disease, the “corrupting” of the flesh from within engender a feeling in her that her own body has double-crossed her. Unlike a disease caused by a virus or bacteria like tuberculosis, which involves an invasion from outside, a cancer patient is made to feel culpable.This sense is reinforced by society and the narratives built around cancer, which are based on flawed and unscientific ideas about factors that trigger it.
Cancer also, ironically duplicates society’s recurrent charge of crime against women and its punishment. Female rape victims are routinely accused of being responsible for the rape “asking for it” or else “deserving it.”The narrative of accusation, of implied sin and punishment surrounding cancer is not new. From ancient times, diseases like leprosy and plague were viewed as marks of divine wrath.2 When a man or a king transgresses moral boundaries or commits a sin, punishment is meted out in the form of an epidemic or a disease. A diagnosis of cancer is still viewed as a judgement. Only the narrative has changed. Now it is regarded as a disease caused due to bad food habits, indulgences like smoking, even sexual repression.3 The implied association with sin and transgression makes the patient feel complicit. A diagnosis of cancer is not only terrifying but also shameful, something that should be concealed from the world. Sontag observes that in the United States of America, cancer is the only disease that is exempt from the law of disclosure:
Since getting cancer can be a scandal that jeopardizes one’s love life, one’s chance of promotion, even one’s job, patients who know what they have tend to be extremely prudish, if not outright secretive, about their disease. And a federal law, the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, cites “treatment for cancer” in a clause exempting from disclosure matters whose disclosure “would be an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” It is the only disease mentioned. (Sontag 8)
The invasive nature of the masculine world that appropriates physical and cultural spaces, that insists on absolute allegiance to its ideology with the threat of physical and psychological punishment to transgressors, find an apt metaphor in cancer. Rennie finds her body invaded and mutilated by cancer. Her disfigurement is foreshadowed in the pornographic clips that she watches as part of her research. Her condition also bears resemblance to the fate faced by transgressing females in fairy tales – cut off hands, feet, tongue.
For Rennie, the mutilation of her body is a direct assault on her conception of self. Given the objectification of women in popular culture, which Rennie partakes of, and the society’s insistence on reducing the female to a body – a sexual object, this is hardly surprising. The loss of her breast challenges her identity as a sexually desirable female because the female’s sexual role is to be the owner of a sexually desirable body on which the male enacts his desire. His is the active role, hers the passive, and without a “perfect” body to offer, she is symbolically “out” of it. Atwood’s epigraph for Bodily Harm, which functions as a heavily-loaded signal to the meaning of the work supports this reading: “A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you. By contrast, a woman’s presence … defines what can and cannot be done to her” (Berger 47). Berger’s claim that “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” proves to be true for Rennie. Watching her body through the eyes of an outsider she finds it wanting and rejects it. Ironically for Rennie this takes precedence even over the fact that she may have a relapse and the cancer might eventually kill her.
Rennie’s sickness also forces her to confront her own isolation. She has no relationship with her parents or any strong bonds of friendship either with men or women. Her past in Griswold instilled in her an unshakable respect for form and to outer appearances which she holds on to even when she reports on countercultural fashion. Once deprived of a perfect form (body), Rennie has a chance to realize how insubstantial outer form and appearances can be. Her grandmother’s illness and her heartbreaking search for her “misplaced hands” did not teach Rennie anything about the hollowness of the exterior and the tragedy of repressing all true feelings for the sake of form. The only lesson Rennie carries from witnessing her mother’s repressed life and the escape of her father from the claustrophobic confines of his wife’s house is to physically escape the issue. Rennie does this firstly by falling in love with her surgeon whom she feels will be able to accept her body with its imperfections because he was instrumental to it, and later by travelling to a strange place, the foreignness of which she believes can liberate and empower her.
Rennie’s journey to the Caribbean island of St. Antoine reveals to her in stark detail that the forces she sought to escape from is replicated on the island, in a heightened form. The violence and danger she undergoes on the island makes the coil of rope on her bed which triggered her flight from Toronto appear rather innocuous. One of the most political of Atwood’s novels, Bodily Harm does not merely highlight the sexual politics but the brutal reality of power politics, between men and women and between the races and classes. Atwood’s protagonists, white females in a predominantly white environment, are rarely pitted against a backdrop that rips the mask covering their prejudices. Rennie’s travel narrative with its overtly surrealistic orientation “systematically confuses characterization, plot development, setting and even genre,” observes Lorna Irvine and “[a]lthough the opening sentence implies a specific time (the present) and a space (here), the novel in fact refuses clarification in favour of a nightmarish literary landscape that condenses the characters and displaces the affects” (Irvine 85). The obfuscation of markers that tend to locate the text in a specific time and context universalizes the experience Rennie undergoes on the island.
Cancer, which had obliterated boundaries between benign and malignant for Rennie, also makes her cognizant of the malevolent forces at work in life, like the faceless man with the coiled rope. The knowledge that she carries death or cancer cells within her impinges on her consciousness with an urgency that is hard to ignore. At times she fears that her scar will “split open like a diseased fruit” (Atwood 60) “It is this irrational fear of splitting open and collapsing boundaries between inside and outside” which haunts Rennie in her dreams and in her waking life, transforming even the sight of Lora’s bitten fingernails into a sight of psychological horror. Coral Ann Howells feels that “Rennie is a woman on the edge of collapse, for huge gaps have opened up in her imaginative topography of self and personal relations as she faces the breakdown of all her fictions of femininity and romance” (114).
Rennie’s refusal to look, her inability to read signs and events correctly leads her into what she abhors, and has avoided so far – “massive involvement” (Atwood 34). Her illegal imprisonment, based on mere doubt of her involvement in the coup, and the violence she is forced to witness in the prison, forces her to cast off her indifference and become morally involved in the life around her. “This is emblematized in the phrase ‘massive involvement’ where the meaning shifts from a specific medical terminology about cancer to becoming a description of Rennie’s moral position as a socially responsible member of the body politic” observes Howells (107). Lora’s brutalizing by the guards act as a waking up call for Rennie and for the first time she recognises that she is not exempt. The savage violence and anger that puncture the text at regular intervals suddenly coalesces for her into one frightening possibility. Earlier, when Rennie watched the police beating up the deaf and dumb man, she had felt detached and mildly ashamed of her “own fascination.” In fact, partaking of the outsider’s “tourist” gaze she judges the scene on the scale of “picturesqueness” and dismisses it callously as “this isn’t.” “Rennie’s desire to see things from the surface and as picturesque reveals her own implication in the voyeuristic male gaze that looks at but feels disconnected from the suffering of other,” remarks Bouson (129). Confronted with “too much” reality, Rennie longs for the familiar comfort of late-night television and pop-corn, failing which she attempts to escape into the world of memories only to realize that her former lovers have transformed into insubstantial ephemeral forms and the only reality is the faceless man with the rope. “He is the only man who is with her now, he’s followed her, he was here all along, he was waiting for her” (Atwood 287). Bouson commenting on how Atwood universalizes the faceless man, remarks:
In Bodily Harm, however, the criminal, the man with the rope, is never specifically identified; instead, he assumes a variety of identities, including not only the sadistic island police but also the men Rennie is romantically involved with. Thus, rather than representing a particular individual, the faceless stranger comes to represent the latent potential in all men to brutalize women. His crime is not an aberration but a direct consequence of patriarchal ideology with its hierarchical and pathological system of male dominance and female subordination. (114)
Male domination and female subordination is predicated on the power structure inherent in society. “There’s only people with power and people without power,” (Atwood 240) Paul tells Rennie bluntly, and in the prison where the demarcation is starkly drawn, she is forced to conclude that the men with power actually enjoys wielding it. Rennie observes how the policeman while cutting the hair of the deaf and dumb man with a bayonet “pulls the head back like a chicken’s…slices [the hair] with the bayonet. [H]e’s not careful enough, the man howls, a voice that is not a voice, there are no teeth in his opened mouth, blood is pouring down his face” (289). Rennie realizes with mounting horror that the man with the bayonet, is an “an addict,” for whom the scream is a “hard drug and “he will need more” (289).
Validating Rennie’s persecutory fears is the savage beating Lora endures at the hands of the prison guards. When Lora learns that the guards have deceived her and used her, and that her lover was shot during the uprising, she angrily threatens to retaliate, forgetting her position of absolute helplessness. Rennie watches as Lora is savagely beaten. “They go for the breasts and the buttocks, the stomach, the crotch, the head, jumping…” (Atwood 292). Realizing that the impetus behind the beating was a primitive one, “Morton’s got the gun out and he’s hitting her with it, he’ll break her so that she’ll never make another sound,” Rennie does not utter a sound for she is afraid they will see her (293). “Beaten until she lies motionless, her pulped face no longer a face but a bruise, reduced to a featureless cipher, Lora is the very emblem of the silenced, victimized woman and the fragmented body/self,” remarks Bouson (130). Rennie’s action of clasping Lora and calling out to her registers her decision to move beyond surfaces and enter a reality which she had so far evaded and she is cognizant of its import.
[T]here’s an invisible hole in the air, Lora is on the other side of it and she has to pull her through, she’s gritting her teeth with the effort, she can hear herself, a moaning, it must be her own voice, this is a gift, this is the hardest thing she’s ever done….Surely, if she can only try hard enough, something will move and live again, something will get born. (Atwood 299)
The text refuses certainties and the reader like Rennie is left unsure whether Lora lives or dies. However, the text does suggest that when Rennie takes Lora by the hand, hoping that “something will get born,” she herself undergoes a rebirth experience and critics like Catherine McLay have insisted that the brutalizing of Lora turns Rennie “from an observer into an actor, a contributor” (137). No longer a lifestyles writer focusing on superficialities, a subversive Rennie has been transformed into a reporter who “will pick her time; then she will report.” What Rennie sees “has not altered; only the way she sees it” (Atwood 301, 300).
Bodily Harm, like other Atwood novels, defies strict generic categories but partakes of the elements of a gothic novel, a spy thriller and a travel romance. Atwood deliberately mixes in disparate elements and then proceeds to subvert those very elements. So while we find Rennie, the lost heroine imprisoned in a cellar, the “hero” Paul turns out not to be a hero, but a “danger freak” who rescues women not out of any goodness but because he enjoys taking risks. Likewise, the romance Rennie finds on the island is not “a no-hooks, no-strings vacation romance with a mysterious stranger” (Atwood 222), but a fatuous “fling” which circumstances conspire to bring about and the ending can be seen as a satiric take on all these genres. Atwood abandons her heroine to her fate with no rescuer or no neat denouement in sight. The uncertainty about the eventual fate of both Lora and Rennie underscore the phantasmal aspect of the ending. This nightmarish unreality is further buttressed by the dialogic elements. The story loops around fluctuating between the past and the present and the first person narrator is displaced by Lora’s narrative which is also in first person. According to Lorna Irvine “the plots and subplots” of Bodily Harm “intermingle, and the repetition of both words and images creates a ritualistic pattern that often suspends movement,” which undergirds the feeling of being inescapably trapped in a nightmare. “A number of italicized language fragments, seemingly disembodied, pierce the text, drawing to the reader’s attention the peculiar balance between first – and third – person narration while, at the same time, signaling a possible here and now,” (85-86) remarks Irving.
Atwood uses cancer as a trope to force the reader to examine received notions about women and society. In Bodily Harm, both women and society are presented as diseased, urgently needing healing. For women, the disease is definitely internal. Bodily Harm can be said to exteriorize the internal malaise afflicting the “post-feminist” generation of the eighties, women who felt discomfited by the assertive brand of second generation feminists. It can be read as a warning to those who assume gender equality as axiomatic. The freedom to work coupled with financial freedom blinds people to the insidious demands of a patriarchal society that seeks to control how a woman looks, dresses, eats, or even thinks. Appropriating the freedom wrested by women after centuries of oppression, patriarchy conspires and machinates with capitalist consumerism to subvert it by making women collude in their own subjugation.
For Atwood, the society is also sick and it is reflected in its approach to women. The backlash against feminist assertion is evidenced in the “stupendous upsurge in violent sexual imagery” depicting the abuse of women observes Naomi Wolf (136). Calling attention to the mainstreaming of “high-class pornographic photography, such as Playboy’s,” and by the advertising fraternity, Wolf observes that by the end of the 1970s, sadomasochist images “had ascended from street fashion to high fashion in the form of studded black leather, wristcuffs, and spikes,” and that models “adopted from violent pornography the furious pouting glare of the violated woman” (135, 136). She insists that such imagery serves “to counterbalance women’s recent self-assertion” (137, 142). Rennie is a woman who refuses to dialogically engage with the contradictions within herself. Instead, she tries to ignore or gloss over her psychological ruptures. It is this suppression that erupts in her as bodily issues. The issue and its manifestation might be different for different women. The inner malaise might manifest as physical disorder or psychological problem like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. What cannot be contested is the complicity of a patriarchal society in precipitating such a crisis in women.
 The “cancer cells do not simply multiply; they are ‘invasive’” they can be ‘malignant’ or ‘benign.’ “Cancer cells “colonize” from the original tumor to far sites in the body” and remissions might be temporary (Sontag 64). The language of the treatment also has a military flavor. “Radiotherapy uses the metaphors of aerial warfare; patients are “bombarded” with toxic rays. And chemotherapy is chemical warfare… [which] aims to “kill” cancer cells.” (Sontag 65).
2 All popular myths have instances of disease as punishment for moral transgressions. For example the plague in Book I of the Iliad that Apollo inflicts on the Achaeans in punishment for Agamemnon’s abduction of Chryses’ daughter; the plague in Oedipus that strikes Thebes because of the polluting presence of the royal sinner) or to a single person (the stinking wound in Philoctetes’ foot).
3 As once TB was thought to come from too much passion, afflicting the reckless and sensual, today many people believe that cancer is a disease of insufficient passion afflicting those who are sexually repressed, inhibited, unspontaneous, incapable of expressing anger (Sontag 21). Both the myth about TB and the current myth about cancer propose that one is responsible for one’s disease. But the cancer imagery is far more punishing. Given the romantic values in use for judging character and disease, some glamour attaches to having a disease thought to come from being too full of passion. But there is mostly shame attached to a disease thought to stem from the repression of emotion…[t]he view of cancer as a disease of the failure of expressiveness condemns the cancer patient: expresses pity but also conveys contempt (Sontag 48).
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