Much like The Diviners by Margaret Lawrence, Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle depicts the life of a writer trying to find her place in the world. In fact, both novels seem to argue that an artist is defined, first and foremost, by the culture that surrounds him or her. The difference lies in the cynical undertones permeating the life of our protagonist, Joan, a newly discovered poet and secret author of Gothic romances.
Told in large part through flashbacks narrated by Joan as she tries to escape a blackmailer and, more to the point, her own success, Lady Oracle features characters who constantly seek refuge from their true selves. For example, our protagonist’s lazy, spineless husband, Arthur, has megalomaniacal delusions of revolution, while her lover, Chuck, takes on the exuberant persona of the Royal Porcupine. For them, role-playing is a matter of survival.
Joan is no exception to this. Throughout the novel, she oscillates between reality and fantasy, often confusing her own biography with her Gothic fiction. She is in constant inner conflict, struggling to feel like she’s part of a greater whole while trying to retain a sense of control over her life: “Being left out altogether was too much for me. I capitulated, but I paid for it.”
Though she fantasizes about ideal love, what Joan truly craves is to feel needed and for her own needs to be recognized. However, the countless rejections she’s suffered during her childhood have caused her to use her outsider status as a means to protect herself against the world: “By this time I was eating steadily, doggedly, stubbornly, anything I could get. The war between myself and my mother was on in earnest; the disputed territory was my body.” In order to maintain her autonomy, she sacrifices her chances to fit in: “I wasn’t going to let myself be diminished, neutralized. I wouldn’t ever let her make me over in her image, thin and beautiful.”
Joan’s cruel exile to the margins of society allows her to develop a keen eye for suffering and a strong sense of empathy. It is then that she takes her first steps as an artist and becomes a writer of Gothic romances: “when they were too tired to invent escapes of their own, mine were available at the corner drugstore, neatly packaged like the other pain killers”; “The truth was that I dealt in hope, I offered a vision of a better world.”
Seeking and creating gateways to various worlds of fantasy, Joan becomes intrigued with the possibilities language offers. Consoling others is no longer enough. She engages in automatic writing, surrendering completely to the repressed, irrational side of her dual personality, and writes her first critically acclaimed book: “these words would sort of be given to me. I mean I’d find them written down, without having done it myself, if you know what I mean.” Only then does she become a respected author, an official artist, exposing the voice of our hidden sensual nature without censorship from our rational side.
In short, Margaret Atwood paints in Lady Oracle a rather sordid portrait of the artist, one steeped in frailty and cowardice, yet the novel compelled me nonetheless. Perhaps it’s because of the way Joan’s words flow from page to page, letting us in on her insecurities without ever feeling maudlin or manipulative. Perhaps it’s because her book, “Lady Oracle”, is as chaotic and conflicted as its author’s universe.