When most people hear the name Margaret Atwood, they are most likely to think of her more renowned novels, such as Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale, the latter of which has recently been adapted into a T.V. mini-series. However, it is important to remember that no author can be limited to only their most popular titles, particularly when they are responsible for as many as Atwood is. Canadian born, this writer has published more than thirty novels, works of poetry and critical essays, her writing reaching people in countries all across the globe.
The Heart Goes Last is actually one of Atwood’s most recent novels, having only been published in 2015. It fits into her genre of the futuristic, dystopian novel, by considering the fall of establishment and thus also the loss of societal order. What is particularly interesting about this setting, however, is that it isn’t necessarily futuristic. Whilst certain modes of technology may not exist today, it is easy to imagine everything that takes place in the course of the novel happening in our own time; from mass-redundancies to widening divisions between the rich and the poor, nothing described seems too absurd. Even when the events of the narrative escalate, and disorder becomes, not only chaos, but a dangerous place of uncertainty, these events are presented as cause-and-effect, gradually building into something obscene.
This said, what I deeply admire about Atwood’s style, is how she doesn’t go out of her way to describe the settings of the book. The reader is left to come to their own conclusions, at least initially, about the dystopian chaos that she never truly focuses on. Within the book’s opening pages, for example, readers are exposed to the harsh atrocities of Atwood’s world, her characters considering the gang rape, theft and murder that goes unpunished around them: “There’s been a number of former car owners flung out onto the gravel right around here; knifed, heads crushed in, bleeding to death. No one bothers with those cases anymore, with finding out who did it, because that would take time, and only rich people can afford to have police” (17-18). Comments such as these, which are presented as merely the characters’ absent-minded musings, reveal the true nature of societal chaos. With no fixed law and order, there are no boundaries. In Freudian terms, humankind rejects its super-ego for the sake of its id, once more controlled by the primal instincts that it shares with the rest of the animal kingdom.
Morality, of course, is another interesting issue in the novel. Atwood appears to impose an unusual inversion of values, suggesting that it is in the midst of chaos and disorder, that her characters make their most morally justifiable decisions. In this state of initial anarchy, for example, the female protagonist rejects the potential income of prostitution, stating merely that “it was wrong” (26). Later on in the novel, however, as chaos is replaced by order and a strict sense of authority, the moral decisions made seem to wither and disintegrate; it is almost as though, when the characters were exposed to the horrors of a fallen establishment, they clung onto their morals as a means of separation from the barbarity unfurling around them. When this primal nature is tamed, however, they seem to forget what they have seen, abandoning their morals for the sake of their own enjoyment. If nothing else, I believe this to expose to ambiguity of the human being. We fight to fit into the mould inscribed by society, but only when are close to losing it; the values that we were taught when we lived in an ordered world are a reminder of this structure. When we are comfortable, however, and take the order for granted, all we appear to want to do, is to defy it.
The Heart Goes Last contains twists impossible to predict, and questions that will leave you reeling. It creates a theoretical world that is uncomfortably similar to our own, but another thing that I wanted to focus on, is the power of imagery harnessed here. Without giving too much away about the novel’s actual plot, I will say that it is humanity’s nature to search for profit in any situation, even amidst the suffering of others. This capitalist gluttony is barely emphasised by the language of the novel, Atwood’s characters primarily just reporting their stories, without considering, in too much depth, the motivations and implications surrounding these events. However, careful imagery is promoted throughout the narrative, almost acting as a reminder of this theme. It is hard to ignore, for example, the inexcusable greed of a man who sits smiling at his table, whilst copious amounts of animal fat drips down his lips.
Although this is the first Atwood novel that I have properly read through, I can say that I am utterly inspired. The craftsmanship behind the language on the page is startling; all I can conclude, is that it is no wonder that Atwood has obtained the fame that she so clearly deserves. Of course, whilst I do strongly recommend this book, I must add that, as with many of Atwood’s works, it depicts very adult themes. Two of these, which are consistently evoked, are those of identity and desire; because who can retain a stable identity when nothing around them is stable? And who can resist desire when they’ve already lost everything that they’ve ever known?