‘Bodily Harm’ by Margaret Atwood (1981)


This novel is the third that I’ve read by Atwood. I enjoyed it more than The Edible Woman but not as much as A Handmaid’s Tale.

Like Marion in The Edible Woman, Rennie feels disconnected from her body. Rather than feeling consumed like Marion, Rennie feels betrayed by and unable to control her body. One of the motifs that Atwood uses throughout the novel is Rennie’s attraction to the surface and her inability and unwillingness to probe more deeply. With a breast cancer diagnosis, she becomes forced to confront the treachery of her insides as well as other people’s. Her trip to St. Antoine, where no one seems to be what they appear, accentuates this need.

Another motif Atwood uses involves hands. Each of Rennie’s relationships is characterized by a different image. There is a repeated image of Jake trapping Rennie’s hands in his own, of his domination over her during sex. Paul often grips Rennie by her elbow, which isn’t quite as domineering but still suggests that Paul has control over her. With Daniel, Rennie speaks of awkward and stolen holding of hands—a more egalitarian but not a comfortable image. Finally, there are Lora’s hands, which Rennie finds disgusting and comments that she would never hold those hands, stained with nicotine and reddened at the cuticles from nervous biting. Therefore, one of the final images of Rennie

holding Lora’s left hand, between both of her own, perfectly still, nothing is moving, and she knows she is pulling on the hand, as hard as she can, there’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

is a very powerful one.

At one point, Paul tells Rennie that he finds American women tedious to talk to because they are spouting “women’s lib” and worrying about wearing bras when he has seen many parts of the world in which people can’t eat. And, indeed, ideologies like feminism seem to emerge in communities in which everyone’s basic needs are met. So what is Atwood’s point exactly? Her prose is quite feminist, therefore I can’t imagine her dismissing feminism as frivolous. But at the end of the novel, I don’t see that it has been deemed beneficial in an impoverished place like St. Antoine or Ste. Agathe. Or even redeemed from Paul’s cut down.

The ending also confused me. Did Rennie escape? The sections in which she describes her release were written without quotation marks, which seemed to characterize the flashback sections. So I’m not sure.


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