Like many, I was first introduced to Margaret Atwood’s remarkable way with words via her prolific and groundbreaking novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, adapted as an acclaimed television series in 2017. But it is through her poetry that I have really understood her mastery of language.
Atwood’s work is often labelled as feminist and this poem is no different, breaking down the gendered societal expectations placed upon a relationship. The speaker, assumed to be a woman, dons a level of empowerment throughout the poem. Her ethereal ability to immortalise her partner highlights the fallible nature of ambitious masculinity. Although only she has the power, it is her partner who wishes to receive the gift of everlasting life. This bizarre metaphor emphasises Atwood’s mockery of the outdated and patriarchal elements of heterosexual relationships, as the speaker’s partner assumes a level of entitlement to her gift.
The mockery of toxic, ambitious and entitled masculinity is further established via Atwood’s depiction of the speaker’s partner as superman; “you hang suspended above the city in blue tights and a red cape.” There is a level of passivity in Atwood’s characterisation of the speaker’s partner, with “hang suspended” connoting a level of dependence upon the powers that placed him there. Although he has been immortalised, he cannot display any sense of his own agency.
Atwood here overturns traditional gender roles to afford the woman a sense of power and authority within the relationship. The poem is a dramatic monologue, and therefore it is the speaker’s thoughts that we are allowed access to. The repeated use of “I” throughout the poem demonstrates that it is the speaker who takes on the primary decision-making within the relationship, again reinforcing Atwood’s inversion of the established norms of the patriarchy.
The poem’s final stanza again offers up a jibe against the patriarchy, with the speaker’s indifference to her partner’s “glowing” transformation, reflecting the superficiality and triviality of toxic masculine ambition. It was the speaker’s power and agency which afforded her partner super-human powers, yet it is his ascent to half-hearted glory which gains the attention.
The poetry of Margaret Atwood has been heralded by many as ground-breaking examples of feminist literature. The 1970s poem resonates with modern day feminism. Having stumbled across her verse by chance last year, I have been gripped by her emboldening anthems against the patriarchy and would encourage anyone and everyone to discover her effortless skill for themselves.
Read Margaret Atwood’s ‘They Eat Out’ here.
Image: Walter Schärer via Flickr.