As fans of any artist – musicians, writers, composers and so on – know, when you are a fan of a particular artist, that artist is going to consistently revisit certain themes, motifs, settings, etc. It’s part of the artistic territory. The creative class are inspired by events, conversations and art that pertain to topics that in some way engage them. Maya Angelou is always going to have something to say about race. Public Enemy consistently attacks systemic injustice inherent in American society. The Wachowskis, particularly in their original works (Bound, The Matrix franchise), dig into the nature of reality and perception.
The most interesting artists are the one to explore that same ground in different and exciting ways. The best example I know of an artist who succeeds at simultaneously revisiting similar touchstones while generating original work is Margaret Atwood.
In Atwood, you know you’re going to be presented something about the systemic oppression of women. Whether it’s The Blind Assassin, Oryx & Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale, the ritual, cultural denigration of females is important to what is happening.
In The Blind Assassin, this comes through in the fall of the Chase sisters. Iris is essentially married off to a wealthy industrialist without much choice on her part, a move her father hopes will save his own manufacturing empire and hopefully provide for his daughters’ future. The industrialist is a sadist who is sexually abusive to his wife, a predator who forces himself on Iris’s younger sister, Laura, when Iris is pregnant with their daughter. While the events in the lives of Iris and Laura are the focus, Atwood continues to spin the tales of downtrodden women in the secondary characters. Winifred Griffin, the sister of Iris’ husband Robert, longs to climb to the top of the Canadian social and political landscape. But she isn’t “old money” enough to marry into such power, so she feels she must support the aspirations of her brother, defend his sick predelictions and ride his coattails as high as he will take her. Reenie and her daughter, Myra, are the caretakers of the Chase family. Reenie is trapped in the servant class, by birth, gender and lack of education. Myra manages to rise to the merchant class, but still can’t separate herself from her familial duty to the Chases. Even Iris’ and Laura’s mother, mentioned briefly in flashbacks, is doomed to death by her gender. Her and her husband’s attempts to produce a male heir end up being what breaks Mrs. Chase physically, leading to her untimely death.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, the fall of the democratic United States is staged to establish a totalitarian Christian theocracy that’s first priority is to turn women and racial and ethnic minorities into second class citizens. The U.S. – now the Republic of Gilead – becomes a Christian version of oppressive theocracies such as Saudi Arabia. Women’s rights are limited, as most are not even allowed to learn to read. Something has caused a decline in the birth rate, so the handmaid class – essentially fertile concubines – is created. Wives become merely a woman on an arm at social functions, while men use their sex slaves for reproduction and as escorts in underground gatherings out of the public eye.
In Oryx & Crake, the future is all genetic manipulation and advertising. Small, prosperous compounds house corporations, scientists and their families, keeping the general public in their ghettos and at a distance. Crake is the greatest of the scientific geniuses, even creating his own race of humans designed to stay simple and peaceful forever, without prejudice or superstition. His in-between with the neo-humans is Oryx, a one-time child sex slave that teen-aged Crake and the narrator, Snowman, watched perform online. Oryx represents desire in its best forms – Snowman’s obsession and desire to save the innocent, even after she no longer needs saving – and worst – Crake uses Oryx to manipulate Snowman and eventually hasten Crake’s man-made apocalypse, as well as Oryx’s life in child porn and as the live-in sex slave for an American businessman. Crake’s final act before his own death is to kill Oryx, a show of victory in a tug-of-war for her affections with Snowman and the ultimate tantrum of a child who is taking his toy and going home. So even in death, Oryx is dehumanized by a man.
The themes of oppression and abuse of women are prominent throughout these works. Yet the tales themselves have little in common. The Blind Assassin is epic historical fiction, running from just before the first World War until near the end of the 20th century. The Handmaid’s Tale is the dystopian future of blind religious fanaticism. Oryx & Crake is the ultimate post-apocalyptic tale, the story of man’s desire for knowledge run amok, destroying the world and taking us back to the not-so-paradise-like Garden of Eden, a book that would comfortable sitting on the bookshelf between copies of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Stand.
Is it possible to ask more of an artist than this, consistent inventiveness in story telling while simultaneously finding new ways to expose and attack cultural and societal bias?