Representation of Female Characters in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake

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The ambiguous representation of female characters in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is unusual for Atwood’s often acclaimed portrayal of authentic female relationships as the story features a male protagonist, the first whom Atwood has written which makes the novel provide only unreliable information on the female characters portrayed in the novel. Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake is the first book of a dystopian MaddAddam trilogy. A critical concern for Atwood that is demonstrated in the novel is the environment. Arguably, the feminist lens however is perhaps one of the most interesting lenses to apply to the novel as the text does not purposely handle ‘women’s issues’ it introduces more stereotypical attitudes towards women.

The post apocalyptic society seen in the novel is different, but it gives us all too familiar reminder of our own. Since her first published book in 1969, The Edible Women, her work has always been characterised as ‘feminist literature’ with her feminist concerns still resonating today. Her inspiration for creating strong female characters, is suggested to come from the strong women influences she was surrounded by at a young age as she was born at the start of World War II. Her first perception of women, Atwood saw women in typically masculine roles, as they assisted in the war effort. The story is narrated from the perspective of Snowman, previously known as Jimmy in the time before he becomes the last surviving human to his belief. From chapter to chapter, the story switches between the narration of Snowman’s present state in which he is struggling to cope with his isolated environment and his past self which depicts of both his childhood and young adulthood. In the opening moment of the novel, we are introduced to Snowman’s isolated condition. Jimmy’s relationships are characterized by emptiness on the one hand and betrayal on the other, until after the plague when he is the last human left he takes on the name “Snowman,” which bears a marked resemblance to the words “no man,” implying that without any other humans with whom to have relationships that Snowman can’t be human himself.

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Relationships shown throughout the book resemble the deterioration of the earth, ‘the distant ocean grinding against the ersatz reefs of rusted car parts and jumbled bricks and assorted rubble sound almost like holiday traffic.’ 1 The broken technology of the suggested late 21st century world is littered across an increasingly green landscape, showing a high-tech world has collapsed into nature. The novel Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood is undoubtedly divergent from the rest of her novels as while Atwood frequently presents women in Oryx and Crake as enigmatic and overtly rebellious, however the narrator of Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake is a third person limited narrator taking the not entirely reliable viewpoint of Jimmy/Snowman. Whilst giving the narrative flexibility and giving access to Snowman's inner thoughts, the character Jimmy reinforces the cultural stereotypes of women, specifically for the character of Oryx, who is portrayed as simply a possession to not only Jimmy but the desires of other men such as Crake, Jimmy’s childhood friend and talented scientist, Uncle En and Jack who both used Oryx as an enslaved sex-worker. Margaret Atwood’s female characters are described by Deya Bhattacharya as having ‘rebellion, anger, misery, and litost.’2 Thus, the representation of Oryx as relentlessly positive and peaceful embraces a new form of women for Atwood even though Atwood has not always established herself as a supporter of the feminist movement and how it influences literature.

The novelist disputes when interviewed ‘the first thing people said was why did you choose a man? And it just gets so tedious,’3 suggesting that as her readers sympathise and are empowered by the women that Atwood constructs, they should feel no inferior connection when reading from the experience of a man especially as her other novels such as the Handmaid’s Tale are not just about the oppression of women but how men are also not all superior in the regime. Acknowledging that Atwood wanted to advance from writing from the perspective of women to expanding to men. However, the disappointment becomes paradoxical as to narrate from a man's viewpoint implies to come to the expense of women being well-rounded characters in the novel. By creating Oryx, a perplexing, ethereal character that intertwines in the text, Oryx is the only female character that Jimmy sees differently. As one of the two influential characters in Jimmy’s narration; Oryx is a character who both embodies and eschews conventional feminine attributes in a patriarchal society For many, Oryx is seen as completely rejecting female stereotypes as Jimmy cannot manipulate her, so he is forced to appreciate her as a real human being.

To some readers, Oryx could have been the quintessential female ‘victim’, but Atwood depicts her as a strong, resilient type which seems to have come to terms with her past, rather than conforming to negative repeated female cultural stereotypes, such as the representation of women as fundamentally ‘cute but essentially helpless’, or dangerous due to their power over men. However, the relationships depicted in the text by Atwood are very uninspiring and negative which can be seen to fit the idea of the ‘eternally dissatisfied shrew’, such as Oryx can conform to female stereotypes as for some readers she merely shifts from one stereotype to another by being Jimmy’s obsession, she is portrayed as ‘an immoral and dangerous seductress’, ‘was that the hook – that he could never get from her what the others gave so freely? Was that her secret?’ but inevitably an unworldly, self sacrificing angel as ‘Oryx had neither pity for him nor self-pity.’ can also be presented as the dubious, oppressed feminine figure with her commodified and sexualized body defining her in the novel, being only associated with sex as she is passed from man to man throughout her lives. Nevertheless, Atwood has yet acknowledged the benefits the movement has had on literature as ‘a sharp-eyed examination of the way power works in gender relations … a vigorous exploration of many hitherto-concealed areas of experience’ 4 are revealed although regressing to a stereotypical view of women through the eyes of Jimmy.

Oryx is the key character in understanding how women are represented in, Oryx and Crake, as Oryx’s earlier years before she met JImmy are ambiguous the reader finds it harder to relate to Oryx as a character as she came from an underdeveloped eastern country as a slave, her attitude is to be understated and complaint to the men presented in Oryx and Crake. This is an unrelatable and unrealistic stereotype to the typical readers of Atwood’s novels who usually read her novels to be empowered by the females shown. Due to her attached childhood, this has affected Oryx’s development into adulthood, as her lack of socialisation and understanding of typical male and female relationships makes her describe, love as ‘undependable, it came and then it went, so it was good to have a money value, because then at least those who wanted to make a profit from you would make sure you were fed enough and not damaged too much.’ The quote’s language emphasises the ingrained attitude to the female body oryx relianece on Jimmy Margaret Atwood’s representation of the character Oryx epitomises women's repeated familiar cultural stereotypes, including an interpretation of the trope ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ shown through Jimmy’s perspective, recognised by feminist criticism and initially coined by Nathan Rabin in 2007 who later disowned the term as it began to be too broadly used, however, there are ways of appropriately applying the trope without falsely stereotyping.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a one-dimensional character and term is described by Rabin as it ‘exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures’ 5. The focal point of the ambiguous archetype, Oryx, is her idiosyncratic behaviour, her ability to not dwell on her apparent horrifying past and maintaining a composed peaceful nature to the extent of frustrating Jimmy when he questions her past, 'Why do you want to talk about ugly things?'. Additionally, Oryx wants to maintain the illusion that she is a ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ and repress her own needs and emotions to act as a crutch to men such as Jimmy and Crake whether it be sexually or financially, without ever seeking any independent goals herself. As it is this mystery that motivates him to care about her. To the reader, the character Oryx has more progression than being a typical trope however as a result of Jimmy’s flawed narrative Oryx lacks depth, Oryx’s entire life revolves around learning how to please men. As a result, she teaches two men, a damaged sex addict and a detached scientist, to love.

As Atwood is a literary critic herself, some critics are disappointed in Atwood’s representation of women, ‘what strikes the novel's only really duff note, oddly, is its main female character, Oryx.’6, even though this is usually more apparent with male writers in general, female writers have also ‘succumbed to the lure of stereotypical representations’.7 Analysing the novel from a feminist approach it can be disputed that Atwood writes for an indirect female audience, suggesting Oryx is only a deconstruction of a ‘Manic pixie dream girl’, and in reality dislikes being treated as only beneficial for the main character and admired as the stereotype they are not. On the other hand from the third person narration and Jimmy’s perspective female readers unintentionally take up a male reading viewpoint and it becomes challenging to oppose the dominant reading of the text. Criticised by Natasha Walter as that Oryx is primarily ‘Jimmy's wet dream ... the effect is bland as candy floss’.6 This claim is further strengthened as Oryx is shown to be an unintelligible character whose ambitions are blurred, quoting John Berger, ‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’8 The character, Oryx, is virtually a plot device in men’s lives as it is uncomplicated and advantageous than assuming victimhood in a patriarchal society. Male dominance and female invisibility Male Gaze- small characters The crackers Jimmy’s mam The main antagonist, Jimmy, has a complicated detachment from others, his use of child pornography, and his poor relationships with his girlfriends makes him comfortable with manipulating women. Resulting in him having no respect for his mother, his girlfriends, or any other women in his life and sees women as toys he can play with for fun.

In many ways the negative influence of pornography is reflected in Oryx and Crake, as at a young age on Jimmy and Crake were exposed to hard-core pornography which had an impact on their sexual development, resulting in affecting their capability to build a genuine relationship with women. Atwood indicates that pornography has developed from an uncomplicated coition to an exceedingly sadistic and explicit degree, and suggests that pornography has become more than an amusement. Recounted by Jimmy as, ‘far beyond his control’ 1, to the extent, they watched executions and porn at the same time, ‘If you switched back and forth fast, it all came to look like the same event’ 1. In that regard, pornography also serves as a way for young men to educate themselves, still, Atwood disputes pornography instigates a power trip in men and ‘incites real people to do really awful things to other real people’ 4. Atwood appeals to society to scrutinize the harm pornography can cause and how it presents women as their sexuality being constructed by males and merely an object of male desire, thereby contributing to gender inequality.

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Representation of Female Characters in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 25, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/representation-of-female-characters-in-margaret-atwoods-oryx-and-crake/
“Representation of Female Characters in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/representation-of-female-characters-in-margaret-atwoods-oryx-and-crake/
Representation of Female Characters in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/representation-of-female-characters-in-margaret-atwoods-oryx-and-crake/> [Accessed 25 Jul. 2024].
Representation of Female Characters in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 27 [cited 2024 Jul 25]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/representation-of-female-characters-in-margaret-atwoods-oryx-and-crake/
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