Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Seal Books
Reviewing short story collections presents a particular challenge in that each chapter carries its own point of view, characters, and thematic scheme, making it impossible to discuss the book as a cohesive whole. This is especially true of Margaret Atwood’s Dancing Girls, which has gathered different works throughout the years, depending on the edition. As such, I find it easier to focus on a single tale, one I’m sure is in every version, and trust that you’ll find a similar raison d’être in the others.
In order to assess why a story is being told, one must examine three aspects of the discourse: what the story is, how it’s told, and to whom. In “Rape Fantasies”, many of Estelle’s interests and anxieties are revealed through these three facets of her narration (or recollection): the what refers to the notion of rape and Estelle’s consequent insecurities; the how addresses her concerns about its trivialisation; and the whom hints at her morbid curiosity, her true rape fantasy.
The what of “Rape Fantasies” is obvious. As the title suggests, the story is about one’s perception of rape. Estelle’s universe is saturated with the notion: “So at work, they all have to talk about it [rape] because no matter what magazine you open, there it is, staring you right between the eyes, and they’re beginning to have it on the television, too.” However, while the idea of rape seems new to her environment (like the flavour of the month), our narrator quickly establishes that she’s a veteran of the rape fantasy: “The way they’re going on about it in the magazines you’d think it [rape] was just invented.”
Estelle gets indignant when her colleagues discuss their rape fantasies: “those aren’t rape fantasies […] Rape is when they’ve got a knife at you or something and you don’t know what to do.” Throughout her anecdotes, she always remains the most mature, the dominant personality. Every one of her rape fantasies ends with her gaining the upper hand on her assailant. The woman is apparently choosing to only recall the memories and fantasies in which she’s in control, thus hinting at her insecurities and feelings of impotence regarding the matter.
Estelle’s selective memory isn’t the only editing process taking place in her discourse. The manner in which the events are depicted, or the how, is indicative of her detachment. Our heroine has never been raped or known anyone who has. Though this is never mentioned, her lighthearted tone and her cynical yet often naïve reflections make it apparent: “I squirt him in the eye. I hope you don’t think it’s too vicious. Come to think of it, it is a bit mean, especially when he was so polite and all.”
In spite of herself, Estelle tends to trivialise the experience of rape: “In a real rape fantasy, what you should feel is this anxiety, like when you think about your apartment building catching on fire and whether you should use the elevator or the stairs.” She commits the very sin for which she reproaches her friends and society as a whole: “RAPE, TEN THINGS TO DO ABOUT IT, like it was ten new hairdos or something.” Mind you, the woman may well be aware of her faults in this regard. Why else would such a carefree person feel so strongly about this issue?
Estelle is denying her morbid fascination with rape. This is made apparent by the whom: with whom does our narrator share these fantasies? Her audience consists of a man she’s just met at a bar, as indicated by sentences such as the following: “But I guess it’s different for a guy”; “Like here for instance, the waiters all know me”; “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, except I think it helps you get to know a person, especially at first.” Estelle is courting disaster. Why else would she share her personal rape fantasies with a complete stranger? At the same time, she’s rationalising that she’s in fact ensuring her safety: “how could a fellow do that to a person he’s just had a long conversation with?”
By analysing the subject, the tone, and the audience of Estelle’s discourse, readers can uncover her true concerns and motivations, the conflict between her sense of caution and her morbid curiosity regarding rape. However, Margaret Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies” is a dialogue in itself, one that occurs between the author and the readers. As such, the same methodology applies: the what consists of a woman trivialising the experience of rape and inviting its tragedy; the how refers to a female perspective full of denial; and the whom is we, the readers, contemporary men and women. All this brings us to an important social concern, our culture’s denial and trivialisation of women’s issues, and wouldn’t you know it? That’s exactly what Dancing Girls as a whole addresses.