May 31, 2013 by Vicki
Lady Oracle is the most human of the Margaret Atwood’s novels that I have read. The main character, Joan Foster, is completely believable and I could not help but empathize with her. Joan struggles with her weight and her conception of herself throughout Lady Oracle. As a child, her mother felt embarrassed by her child’s bulk and tried to shame her into deflating. As a teenager, Joan rebelled against her mother through continuing to overeat and gain weight. Only when her beloved Aunt Lou, the only family member who ever treated her with love, died and left her an inheritance with the requirement of losing weight did Joan finally begin to act against her size. For the rest of the novel, however, Joan’s early obesity influences her conception of herself.
Throughout Lady Oracle, Joan has difficulty believing in her own attractiveness. She distrusts any expression of approval or appreciation of her physical form. She also has difficulty dealing with inappropriate sexual behaviour. She ends up as the mistress of a Polish Count because she did not realize that his request that she live with him came with the requirement of sexual activity. Embarrassed by her own lack of understanding, Joan allows the initial encounter to occur and thus loses her virginity. Joan attributes her lack of awareness to her previous obesity. She describes being fat as providing a protection from the interest of men. She never felt the dangerous gaze of male desire before. Consequently, she did not feel the need to fear men. Once she lost the weight, she had to remind herself to be careful that she was now a target. Losing weight places Joan Foster into the desirable and thus targeted female.
In Lady Oracle, Joan writes Gothic Romances and uses the relationship between attractiveness and violence. Each of her female heroines is beautiful and targeted by both the male hero and the male villain for sexual gratification. In Joan Foster’s view, a beautiful woman will always be targeted by men. Her mother taught her that nice men did things for you while bad men did things to you and this was reflected in her writings. The main difference between the hero and the villain would be that the hero would act on the heroine’s behalf while the villain simply pursued her. Violence was the inevitable result to any beautiful woman in Joan’s fiction.
Joan also learnt that the violence in women’s lives comes from both genders. As a child, the other girls tormented her because she cried easily and did not fit the lithe, graceful appearance of the other girl’s. As she grew older, she learned how to deflect these torments by becoming the understanding friend and mid-wife to desired relationships. She shielded herself from the attacks of the other girls by becoming their closest confidant. She kept the other girl’s secrets, decorated the school hall for dances, and stayed home for the dance itself. She became the perfect friend; completely trustworthy and never a contender for male affection. Her girlhood friends would become her future audience for she knew their secret desires and their need for escape. In her novels, she created the dashing men her girlfriends dreamt of while removing the threatening other woman through various violent means.
Joan’s fear of the violence in relationships combined with her removal from the world of relationships creates comedic situations that leave the reader wondering what actually has happened. When Joan leaves her parent’s home, she fears that her mother will track her down. She creates an entire new identity for herself using her dead Aunt Lou’s name and birth certificate. After her mother dies, Joan begins to suspect that her father had murdered her despite the official judgement that the event had been accidental. She, however, can find no reason for the murder and yet, can never fully discount the possibility. The reader questions what actually happens but as Joan is the narrator of the tale; we have no recourse for an unbiased opinion.
The reader may have difficulty trusting in Joan’s perception of the world because Joan, herself, continually questions it. Joan describes herself as having “always found other people’s versions of reality very influential” (Lady Oracle, 161) to the point where she questions whether or not she is having an affair because the Count’s believes she is unfaithful. With a narrator who remains this uncertain of their own activities, the reader cannot help but question the narration. The reader must also question the truth of Joan’s narration as Joan frequently fictionalizes the truth. Joan lies continually in an effort to conceal her past. She lies to bury her fat, childhood self. She lies to hide the fact that she writes romantic novels. Through her lies, Joan creates a collection of identities that must remain hidden from the other. Her multiple identities frequently confuse both the reader and Joan.
Lady Oracle is the most human of Margaret Atwood’s novel so far because of Joan Foster. She is confusing and hectic with multiple identities and yet, she is also a woman struggling with the reality of relationships and violence. Her initial obesity provides the background for her awareness of the violence in others. She observed and dealt with it in others as a child yet remained removed from the sexual confusion of the teenage years. She is not perfect but she tries to succeed despite the hand life has dealt her. I thoroughly recommend Lady Oracle for a light-hearted look at our concept of romance and relationship. Situations in Lady Oracle actually made me laugh out loud. The attached video covers the topic of the Fat Lady who is one of the comedic forces within the novel if you are interested.