Photography and Perspective in the novels of Margaret Atwood

Rory Gibb highlights Margaret Atwood's use of photography as a literary device in her work

Image(s): Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1967)


Perhaps due to the interrelation of the two mediums, cinema has a long history of examining the psychology of photography. Similar instances are harder to come across in literature. Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin offers a rare, if brief, example. Echoing Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Eye writings, Isherwood describes himself as ‘a camera, with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’. He frames his novel as a series of experiences which are ‘developed’ and ‘carefully printed’ until we find, on the final page, ‘a very good photograph’. In doing so, he pits the (apparent) objectivity of photography against the subjectivity of literature.


Where Isherwood merely toyed with photography, Margaret Atwood has returned to it again and again. This is not to say that she has written entire novels about camera-operators, nor used photos as key plot points. Rather, Atwood repeatedly uses photographic concepts as a means of exploring the ways in which women have had their images appropriated and manipulated by men. As her character, Roz, says in The Robber Bride, it is as if there is an ‘ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole’.


Atwood’s preoccupation with photography has been evident since her debut novel. First published in 1969, The Edible Woman follows Marian, an aimless college graduate who, due to her strained relationship with her boyfriend, Peter, finds herself repulsed by the idea of consuming food. Peter is a keen amateur photographer and hunter, and, throughout the novel, Atwood juxtaposes these two interests to convey Peter’s underlying threat to Marian.


The drawing of similarities between the camera and the gun is not something unique to Atwood. French filmmaker Chris Marker opened his 1966 essay-film, If I Had Four Dromedaries, with a narrator intoning: ‘it’s the instinct of hunting without the desire to kill. It’s the hunt of angels. You track, you aim, you fire, and – click – instead of a dead man, you make him eternal.’ Likewise, Susan Sontag, in her book On Photography, described the camera as ‘a sublimation of the gun’, explaining that such a sublimation is expressed ‘without subtlety whenever we talk about “loading” and “aiming” a camera, about “shooting” a film’.


Throughout The Edible Woman, Atwood pairs guns with cameras. In Peter’s apartment, Marian notes the ‘pegboard’ on which hangs ‘two rifles, a pistol’ and his cameras, with ‘their glass eyes’. Later, at a dinner date with Peter’s friend Len, Peter recalls a hunting trip during which there were ‘rabbit guts dangling from the trees’, before swiftly moving onto ‘a discussion of Japanese lenses’. In the most obvious parallel, Peter photographs Marian standing alongside his guns. There is a strong sense of manipulation. Peter insists Marian wear his favourite red dress of hers. She is frozen under the gaze of the ‘round glass lens’ and ‘the concave circle of the flashgun’. Her experience here is eerily similar to the way actress Jean Seberg described feeling immobilised by the film camera. ‘To me the camera was like a gun,’ she said in a 1960 interview. ‘Every time they yelled, “action”, I thought I’d be shot.’


As Peter’s gaze becomes more oppressive, Atwood formally imitates it through the novel’s structure. Although we begin with Marian narrating in the first person, her increased dissociation is coupled with a shift to the third person. She is no longer in control of her own story. Her subjective experience is replaced with the gaze of an external narrator. By the end of the novel, as Marian regains control of her life, her first-person narration returns. This connection between perspective and identity is at the core of many of Atwood’s novels, and it’s through smaller references to photographs and cameras that she hints at her wider concerns.


By the time of 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood had extended her focus beyond the male gaze’s violent threat to its sexual threat as well. Although Sontag argues that the idea of the ‘camera as phallus’ is ‘flimsy’, she does admit that the camera can ‘inspire something akin to lust’. However flimsy Sontag may see the phallic symbolism of the camera, a string of films – notably Blow-Up, Peeping Tom, and Hi, Mom – have keenly explored the voyeuristic possibilities of the camera, and it’s these possibilities that Atwood invokes in The Handmaid’s Tale.


Early in the book, Offred and her fellow handmaid, Ofglen, are out on a shopping trip when they are confronted by a group of Japanese tourists, each with a camera. When one of them asks if they can take a photo, Offred declines. Aunt Lydia has taught her that ‘to be seen is to be [...] penetrated’. This exchange synopsises the novel’s larger concerns with ‘looking’. While Gilead purportedly forbids men to gaze sexually at women, it is entirely the woman’s responsibility to cover herself up, to not ‘excite them’. Each handmaid is schooled to be pointedly aware of her own image, becoming what Roz in The Robber Bride describes as ‘a woman with a man inside watching a woman’. Perspective in Gilead is equal to power. Like the tourists with their cameras, the men in Gilead have the power to look at women. But women, inhibited by their ‘blinkers’, can merely see the world in ‘gasps’.


If there is one theme that is more fundamental to Atwood than the connection between perspective and identity, it is the connection between names and identity. In The Robber Bride, she combines the two. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that one of the three main characters, Charis, was originally known as Karen. We also learn that her uncle, Vern, abused her as a child. In a harrowing scene, Atwood describes how Vern ‘falls on top of Karen […] and splits her in two right up the middle and her skin comes open like the dry skin of a cocoon, and Charis flies out.’ Karen’s new identity observes her from the window, having taken on not just a new name, but a new perspective as well. It’s a scene in which Atwood’s chief concerns as a novelist are summed up – the power dynamic between men and women, and how such a dynamic can alter and distort identity.


In only the third paragraph of On Photography, Sontag claims that to take a photograph ‘means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power’. If a novel, like Isherwood suggested, is its own kind of photograph, then Atwood’s work constitutes an effort to reclaim some of this ‘power’ – to make the reader aware of those the camera has appropriated and, thus, to address the imbalance of ‘knowledge’.