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The relationships we have with different people throughout our lives are strong influences on us all. Our relationships with one another can define who we are, as well as the quality of the lives we lead. Strenuous relationships cause stress and unhappiness, while close, loving relationships are a source of support and comfort. Joan Foster, the main character in Margaret Atwood=s Lady Oracle, is a complex woman who has had more than her share of turbulent relationships during her life. From her childhood and teenage relationship with her mother, to her bond with her husband later in life, Joan=s relationships are rarely free of turmoil and drama. These relationships definitely have an influence on Joan, impacting her as a person. The issue of Joan and her relationships reveals a question: How are Joan=s relationships important to her identity?
The first major relationship in Joan=s life is the one with her mother. Joan feels unwanted and unloved by her mother, who treats Joan coldly because of her weight problem. At first, Joan struggles to fit in with her mother=s perfect vision of her and tries to live up to her mother=s expectations. When she fails at this, Joan resents her mother=s unbearable attitude and becomes antagonistic toward her. Joan=s identity then becomes based on the opposite of what her mother expects and wants from her.
At this time my mother gave me a clothing allowance, as an incentive to reduce. She thought I should buy clothes that would make me less conspicuous, the dark dresses with tiny polka-dots and vertical stripes favored by designers for the fat. Instead I sought out clothes of a peculiar and offensive hideousness, violently colored, horizontally striped. Some of them I got in maternity shops, others at cut-rate discount stores; I was especially pleased with a red felt skirt, cut in a circle with a black telephone appliqued onto it. The brighter the colors, the more rotund the effect, the more certain I was to buy. I wasn=t going to let myself be diminished, neutralizes, by a navy-blue polka-dot sack (Atwood 84).
Joan went out of her way to buy clothes that she knew her mother would hate, and that become part of who she was.
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Joan=s relationship with her father was quite different from the one with her mother. They rarely spoke; in fact, they barely had a relationship at all. Joan felt as though her mother drove a wedge between her and her father, but that turns out not to be the case. Once Joan returns home because of her mother=s death, she learns that is was not her mother who drove them apart: AWe had been silent conspirators all our lives, and now that the need for silence was removed, we couldn=t think of anything to say to each other@ (Atwood 180). Joan=s Asilent@ identity when it comes to her father stems from their lack of a relationship. With her mother, Joan knew what to expect and she acted out in the opposite of what her mother wanted. However, Joan=s father had no expectations for her (at least not ones that he voiced). Joan had nothing to react to, therefore, she had no identity while with him.
Joan=s relationship with her father is the only one where she did not act in response to or anticipation of another person=s opinions and wants. After meeting Paul, or the Polish Count, in London, Joan acts in a way that he will find acceptable, so as not to upset or appall him. This is a direct contradiction of the identity Joan assumed when dealing with her mother. Instead of going against Paul=s wishes, Joan is acquiescent and passive. Her passiveness is easily visible during the beginning of her stay in Paul=s home as his mistress when she allows him to take her virginity without saying a word. AHe understood that he was getting into bed with me, and he understood that I understood this also@ (Atwood 147). Instead of voicing concern, or an opinion of any kind, Joan simply lets Paul do as he will. That becomes the pattern with Joan as her relationship with Paul progresses. She is careful not to say or do anything that he doesn=t agree with. She is mindful of his opinions, and she always lets him have the final say in matters. Her identity at this point is based on Paul. She is nothing more than an extension of Paul. Problems begin when Joan tries to break out of this pattern. Paul=s tolerance and patience regarding Joan began to whither as she started to do more things for herself, instead of doing things that pleased him. A...[Paul] began to have fits of jealousy. It was all right as long as I did nothing but loll around the flat, reading and typing out my Costume Gothics and going nowhere except with him@ (Atwood 158). Joan=s identity had gone from being based on Paul=s wishes to being based on wishes of her own, and this meant that Joan no longer shaped herself around what she thought Paul would like. This, of course, did not sit well with Paul, and the turmoil in his relationship with Joan grew until she left and moved in with Arthur, leaving only a note behind. It seems as though once Joan decided to base her identity off of what she wanted instead of what Paul wanted, she could no longer have a relationship with him.
However, Joan=s relationship with Arthur is much like her relationship with Paul. Once married and settled down, Joan returns to her pattern of doing what she thinks Arthur wants and shaping herself in a way that will be more appealing to him. Though I was tempted sometimes, I resisted the impulse to confess. Arthur=s tastes were Spartan, and my early life and innermost self would have appalled him. It would be like asking for a steak and getting a slaughtered cow. I think he suspected this; her certainly headed off my few tentative attempts at self-revelation. (Atwood 215)
She lies to Arthur about her past, never telling him of her strained relationship with her mother or her battles with her weight, all in an effort to become the type of wife that she thinks Arthur wants. Joan feels that her real identity isn=t good enough, so she creates one. Her primary goal is being an ideal wife for Arthur and making sure that he is not displeased with her. AI then discovered to my dismay that Arthur expected me to cook, actually cook, out of raw ingredients such as flour and lard. I=d never cooked in my life....But for Arthur=s sake I would try anything@ (Atwood 208). Joan=s attempts to cook fail, but she keeps cooking because she thinks that Arthur enjoyed watching her blunder: AMy failure was a performance and Arthur was the audience. His applause kept me going@ (Atwood 209). Joan repeatedly makes herself look silly by trying to cook and failing miserably, yet she continues just to please Arthur. When Joan finally does do something without worrying about Arthur=s opinions (the writing and publishing of her book of poetry, Lady Oracle), it is met with hostility by Arthur. The poems contained in Joan=s book give insight into how Joan really feels about her marriage to Arthur, even though she denies that the book is about him. Just as with Paul, Joan=s first act of doing something for herself creates static in her relationship with Arthur. Joan goes even further and has an affair, further asserting her own needs and identity, instead of Arthur=s. It is no surprise that she fakes her death and runs away from her life with Arthur soon thereafter.
Throughout her life, the only major relationship where Joan does not transform her identity to please (or displease, in her mother=s case) another person is the one she has with her Aunt Lou. Aunt Lou is not demanding or judgmental, and she gives Joan to the opportunity to really be herself. AShe actually seemed interested in what I had to say, and she didn=t laugh when I told her I wanted to be an opera singer@ (Atwood 81). Aunt Lou=s loving acceptance of Joan gave her the chance to express what she felt and thought, without worrying about what other people thought. This takes on significance when Joan decides to take her Aunt Lou=s full name, Louisa K. Delacourt, as her pen name. Aunt Lou was the only person that Joan showed her true identity to, without putting on a performance. In the same way, Louisa K. Delacourt served as Joan=s only outlet where she could be herself after Aunt Lou=s death.
Throughout Atwood=s novel, Joan=s identity is determined by the relationships she has with the different people she encounters throughout her life. Joan spends a great deal of her life pretending to be a person that she is not. She puts on performances for the people in her life, so that no one really knows who she truly is. She often alters her behavior and her way of thinking in order to better fit in with her surroundings. In fact, she does so much pretending and role playing throughout Lady Oracle, that one may become confused as to who Joan Foster really is. That is where the role of her relationships come in. Joan, at any given moment, is an extension of the person she is in a relationship with. Therefore, Joan=s identity is formed by her relationships.
Atwood, Margaret. Lady Oracle. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.