Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood is a complex novel that rips open many core human issues and offers them to the audience for scrutiny. Corporations, art, animals vs humans, the structure and usage of language, and, as we will be discussing, the battle between scientific advancement and intimate relationships. There are many more that could be named as the novel is packed full of hypothetical scenarios, what-if’s, and apocalyptic situations that ask the reader what they would do if our world turned down the same path. However, one of the most prominent questions as one reads through is this: When scientific advancement would do away with human intimacy and the need for connection, which would you choose? Every prominent character in the novel made their decision, from Sharon to Crake. Each struggled with their decision and the themes of human intimacy and the pursuit of scientific progress are in constant battle throughout the novel, each clawing for the top spot. However, by the last pages, as we will see, it will appear that those decisions may not mean as much for the characters as they do for the readers.
The first glimpse into this momentous issue is offered to the audience as Snowman, or Jimmy, reflects on his childhood and his parents relationship. Jimmy’s parents, Sharon and an unnamed father, reach a point in their relationship where their morals and needs no longer match up. They are a solid representation of the thought experiment we are exploring. Jimmy’s father is a genetic researcher, emotionally distant and very intelligent. He is often portrayed as being disappointed in his son for not being more of a ‘numbers person’ or, in other words, not being as traditionally intelligent as he had hoped. It is clear from the beginning that Jimmy’s father holds science in a high regard and that he values his job greatly. His wife, on the other hand, increasingly strays away from the same path. At one point in the past Sharon was a microbiologist at OrganInc Farms and, assumedly, held some sort of respect for the scientific progress that was being achieved. However, she eventually leaves her post and becomes a stay at home mom though her increasing levels of depression keep her from performing that role effectively. Initially the reasons behind her leaving OrganInc Farms and the underlying causes for her depression are unclear. We see things from Jimmy’s perspective and, at such a young age, he was not in a position to psychologically analyze his mother’s actions. Eventually, as most things like this do, a climax is reached and Jimmy is made aware of the true struggle his mother is dealing with.
Jimmy had learned how to make small mics in his Neotechnology class that he had hidden one behind a picture in the living room as well as behind a clock in his kitchen (Atwood, 56). With these devices in place, he was able to listen in on conversations from the comfort and relative safety of his bedroom, something he took advantage of one night when his father came home slightly drunk and with seemingly good news to share with his wife. It was during the subsequent conversation that Jimmy eavesdropped on that allowed the audience to fully understand the struggle that Sharon had been going through. The conversation starts out with Jimmy’s father expressing that they had finally managed to get human cortex tissue to grow in a pigoon, a pig engineered to grow organs for human transplants. However, the conversation doesn’t go as Jimmy’s father seemed to hope.
“‘…Don’t you remember the way we used to talk, everything we wanted to do? Making life better for people – not just people with money. You used to be so…you had ideals, then.”
“Sure,” said Jimmy’s father in a tired voice. “I’ve still got them. I just can’t afford them.”
A pause. Jimmy’s mother must’ve been mulling that over. “Be that as it may,” She said – a sign that she wasn’t going to give in. “Be that as it may, there’s research and there’s research. What you’re doing – this pig brain thing. You’re interfering with the building blocks of life. It’s immoral. It’s…sacrilegious.” (Atwood, 57)
We see here that Sharon left her job and became quite depressed because of her moral disconnection with the scientific research that her husband, and once herself, was participating in. While Jimmy’s father holds (and will continue to hold) the research in high esteem and seems to ignore any immoral implications, Sharon does not or cannot do the same.
As the story progresses, Sharon eventually leaves her family behind. It was something she must have been planning on doing for a time before she left as she managed to get through all the checkpoints by claiming she had a dentist appointment (Atwood, 62). In the letter she left to Jimmy, while we do not know all it said since he did not pay attention to everything she wrote, she expressed issues with a dirty conscience and a lifestyle that she found to be meaningless (61). Later on Jimmy will see a glimpse of his mother on tv while watching a protest of the Happicuppa brand (181). She was one of the protesters, a bandanna over her face that slipped out of place and allowed Jimmy to recognize her features. It is then that the readers become privy to what Sharon left her family and her life to do. She became an activist, fighting against genetic engineering and following a life that she found morally uplifting.
Sharon and her husband are a manifestation of the moral conundrum that is deciding between science and human relationships. Jimmy’s father obviously chose scientific pursuit. He ignored his wife’s ethical concerns and seemed unmoved by her depression and obvious distress at what they were doing in those research centers. In a sense, he chose his career and research over his wife and, in some ways, over his son as well, becoming increasingly disconnected as Jimmy grows older. Sharon, on the other hand, chose human intimacy. While she did have to leave her family, sever ties with certain relationships, she then went on to fight against everything her then ex-husband, and society as a whole, was doing. She valued human life, relationships, and the preservation of nature over scientific progress. She chose to be connected to her fellow humans rather than to a cold and sterile lifestyle of genetic engineering. As the readers eventually find out, Sharon is executed by firing squad for what can only be assumed is her involvement in activism. So even though Jimmy’s father and Sharon represented two sides of the same coin, it seems as though one side will always be snuffed out in favor of the other.
The readers catch glimpses of Sharons life throughout the novel as Jimmy encounters her image but it is far from a complete and constant narrative. Given that the novel is strictly from Jimmy’s point of view, it is difficult to get the full truth of any characters, even those that he is intimately connected with. That means, then, that the most complete picture that we do have is of Jimmy himself. While we only catch snapshots of Sharon’s struggles, we consistently get to see the struggles that Jimmy goes through. Namely, his relationship with women. We see that from a young age Jimmy is interested in women and having some sort of relationship with them. During his time at Martha Graham he explains the way he interacts with women and how he sees them. He is attracted to women who were working on themselves, working on healing from various past traumas, and he would come to their aid and listen to their stories (Atwood, 190). However, eventually he would turn that around and become the person who needed fixing in the relationship, he would claim to be a lost cause and to be emotionally stunted, enjoying the way the women would comfort and dote over him. Of course, eventually the women would grow tired of this act and his refusal to take relationships seriously and they would leave, leaving Jimmy to jump to the next woman. The fact that Jimmy could easily describe the sequence of events that happened in every one of his relationships shows the difficulties he had truly feeling connected to his partners. He desired them, naturally, Crake would eventually call him a sex addict, but there is still a certain level of disconnect. Regardless, in those early years, he seemed somewhat content in that.
As the novel continues, Jimmy graduates and eventually obtains a job at AnooYoo. It is then that the readers notice his relationship with women start to shift for the first time. It seems that the further Jimmy falls down the corporate pipeline, the worse his interpersonal relationships become. Not only does he mostly lose contact with Crake, his only real friend, but his sex life dwindles down to nothing and he becomes increasingly dissatisfied. Once he is granted a promotion it seems like his sex life picks up again but he finds himself in a whole new type of dissatisfaction. He ends up with women who already have husbands or boyfriends and becomes the sidepiece, used mostly for sex (Atwood, 251). He shows disdain for being treated as such, feeling disconnected and used and without true intimacy.
“‘Leave your husband,” Jimmy had said, to cut her short. “Let’s run away to the pleeblands and live in a trailer park.”
“Oh I don’t think…You don’t mean that.”
“What if I did?”
“You know I care about you. But I care about him too, and…”
“From the waist down.”
“Pardon?” She was a genteel woman, She said Pardon? instead of What?
“I said, from the waist down. That’s how you really care about me. Want me to spell it out for you?”’ (Atwood, 285)
It’s clear from the exchange with one of his partners that Jimmy craves a certain level of emotional intimacy with the women he is involved with. He isn’t satisfied with just sex, he wants a relationship. Someone to take care of and vice versa. Increasingly as the novel progresses we see that Jimmy represents one side of the coin. He isn’t a traditionally intellectual person. He isn’t good with numbers and doesn’t show interest nor knowledge in science. He is instead a ‘words person’, a romantic with a particular need to have human connection. When alone, he does not seem to do well mentally. During his time at AnooYoo he seems depressed and isolated, uninterested in his job and seeking human connection wherever he can get it. When the decision of scientific progress vs human intimacy is presented, it is clear that Jimmy would gladly choose the latter.
Jimmy’s relationship with women shifts for another time once he reconnects with Crake and begins working underneath him at RejoovenEsense. It is then that he meets Oryx, recognizing her as the little girl he once saw on a child pornography site (Atwood 308). Naturally Jimmy is immediately taken with her, as he had been in the past, but attempts to show little interest in her because he is made aware that she, in some respect, belongs to Crake. Crake is his only friend, as he recognizes, and he questions how he could ever lay a finger on Oryx while that fact remained true (310). Instead, he began going to the pleeblands and paying for girls there. He claims that at first it was fun but soon turned into simply a habit, again dissatisfied with his relationship with women. Lacking in the intimacy he craves. However, eventually Oryx comes to Jimmy and, as he puts it, seduces him (312). While she does have a sexual relationship with Crake, she describes it as mechanical and seems bored with it. Therefore she seeks out Jimmy and they begin a sexual relationship behind Crakes back. It is then that we see Jimmy’s relationship with women shift once again.
Jimmy sees Oryx as snapshots of girls from his past. As the little girl with the ribbon on the child pronigraphy site, as the teenager held captive in a garage, and so on. Throughout the book he seems to desperately want to gain information about her past, about the people who hurt her, and about her own feelings regarding her trauma. It is similar to the way he sought out scarred women in the past, seeking to fix them. However, Oryx doesn’t respond in the way the other women had. She seems disinterested in her past and content in the present. Never angry and never resentful and never willing to give Jimmy what he wants. Whatever Oryx had gone through, of which is unclear, she has dealt with. She is content in her relationships with Crake and Jimmy and her work. This seems to frustrate Jimmy as he feels the need to get back at the people who had wronged Oryx despite the fact that she feels differently.
The readers see the conflict between science and relationships come up again as Jimmy gets increasingly jealous over Oryx and Crake’s continued relationship.
“We could get away from Crake,” said Jimmy. “We wouldn’t have to sneak around like this, we could…”
“But Jimmy.” Wide eyes. “Crake needs us!” (Atwood, 320)
Jimmy craves to have Oryx to himself. He cares very little about the Paradise Project in comparison to Oryx and their relationship, enough that he would be willing to abandon it and Crake. However, Oryx is unwilling to leave. She thinks that Crake is very intelligent and believes in the work that he is doing. The conflict is physical in those moments, with Jimmy choosing human relationships and Oryx choosing scientific pursuits. All his life Jimmy has struggled with women, obviously craving a certain amount of intimacy that is always just out of reach. He is a romantic, valuing human connection while living in a world that clearly values science and research above all else. Jimmy is the most clear representation of this opposition, fitting given that he is the main character and likely not a mistake on Atwood’s part. Jimmy is meant to be a character that doesn’t quite fit in the world around him, he does not think or feel in the same way that everyone else around him does and he desires satisfaction from different parts of life. Atwood used him as a way to express the disconnect between humanity and science, showing that it is difficult for both to exist without one overshadowing the other.
In complete opposition to Jimmy is Crake. He clearly represents the other side of the argument. Unlike Jimmy, Crake is extremely disinterested in sex and romance in general.