The Heart Goes Last: Margaret Atwood creates a new world

Many of the readers in our group have had experience of Atwood’s creative visions of the dystopian futures we may find ourselves travelling towards. We agreed that she often takes concepts which are already beginning to challenge our world and expounds their possibilities to its extreme limits in order to make us consider the morality behind emerging social and scientific advances.

The Heart Goes Last, our reading choice for September, explores how the financial crisis might implode to completely collapse society as we know it and led to anarchy. She suggests that the wealthy could find ways to exploit the working classes to an extreme, where they may consider a form of imprisonment as a ‘good’ solution. The idea is not new; the masses giving up their freedom for safety. There are many other sc-fi and fantasy writers who have also created worlds where people give up free will to survive and protect their family life. They all point to the hidden horrors which people must ignore in order to remain in these constructed realities and thereby suggesting that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The rich and powerful will use the masses and bodies become commodities in these worlds.

AtwoodAtwood shows how far this concept can be pushed so that people’s bodies are no longer their own but can be broken down into parts and sold for multiple purposes. The imprisoned agree to their confinement because they have one month of making money and one month of living so-called free existences, however, once they are in the settlements they cannot leave and, as we see later, can be sent for extermination at any given time. Some of our group therefore considered how this book made them think about the Holocaust and therefore how human beings have already been treated as nothing more than the sum of their body parts.

We also considered the technology behind the novel and the moral debate over robotics. Atwood likes to explore current debates and the role of robots leads to questions about how suitable they are for certain jobs and if it is acceptable to create robots to do jobs that are considered damaging to humans. Atwood uses the sex industry to illustrate these moral dilemmas. The suggestion is that robots can be created to replace people and that this prevents people from being abused in this industry. She examines this in two examples. The first one is where robots of children are made as sex robots and the second is where the Elvis’ send in a sex robot to ‘finish the job’ when the clients they chaperone want more than a mere companion for the night. We considered how robots already exist to replace people in jobs such as customer care and teaching, and that there very well may be sex robots developed. Atwood therefore is challenging social mores and asking which is the lesser evil and if it acceptable to allow such behaviour under these circumstances.

The group took time to consider how the two main characters, Stan and Charmaine, change throughout the narrative. Charmaine starts the novel as a naïve and caring young wife who is making the best of frightening circumstances. By the end of the novel she has proved herself not only capable of murder, but of killing her husband in order to save herself. She has a hidden side behind the perfect wife which begins to emerge during the torrid affair she has with Max. We asked ourselves to what extent she was always going to be open to this behaviour or how much was she manipulated into behaving in essence out of character. Some of us considered what we knew about her past through her flashbacks with Grandma Win and the suggestion that there was abuse and possible incest in her childhood. These hidden traumas could have made her susceptible to Max’s advances and may be the reason she was chosen by Jocelyn to be at the centre of her plans. We also discussed how she was manipulated throughout the whole story and that in the end she realised that she had chosen to believe she had no free will as acceptance of the status quo was the easy option. One member of the group suggested that ultimately Charmaine’s character was just not believable enough and that she was too boring to be the central character. They did not believe that she could turn from sweet girl into damaged and corrupt abuser.

The ending of the book caused a lot of heated discussion as many could not accept the slapstick comedy as a form for engaging with the serious themes and considered that it did not work, not only as an ending but in the way it contrasted to the beginning of the novel. The point was made that the novel had originated as a short story and it was suggested that it was intended for serialisation which might explain the changing format of the story as the novel progressed. There was a consensus that the start of the book was too much in contrast to the middle and the ending. One member liked the ideas behind the book but felt it got lost half-way through. The ending was just too much for many of the others who could not understand how Conor could turn around from being the typical bad boy at the start into one of the good guys who was to ‘save’ everyone from a fate worse than death.

We discussed how there appeared to be a lack of consequences or resolution in the ending. No one was properly punished for their wrong doing, although we did consider how Ed’s new role as Lucinda’s sex slave might be considered as punishment, even if he was not aware of it. We asked if that said more about our expectations of what made ‘bad’ characters and if a novel should be working towards a resolution. The purpose of the ending was open to interpretation with a question over what was happiness and what was choice. Is the ultimate goa of a given society to have the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people? Is the ending of this novel questioning that very concept?

 

Anthea Cordner

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