Trauma and the female body: An exploration of representations of women in contemporary women’s writing

Rebecca Claire March

This dissertation investigates how the concept of stigmatising the female body is challenged in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, and its demeaning effect on women. It also investigates the psychological empowerment that the narrative brings to the female protagonists depicted.



Within the medium of literature, women and the female body have been traditionally presented as passive, and it is the genre of contemporary women’s writing that looks to challenge this demeaning concept. Modern socio-political discourse continues to stigmatise women, and it is the writing of women, by women, that that is re-establishing the role of ‘the weaker sex’ in the literary sphere. 

This dissertation will primarily focus upon Dr. Sandra L. Bloom, M.D.’s Psychological Trauma Theory and its application to contemporary women’s writing in the 20th and 21st century. Through exploration of the genre of ‘trauma fiction’, as defined by Anne Whitehead, I will use critical analysis to examine the ways in which women write women’s bodies in the context of traumatic experience. On a secondary level I hope to shed light on the significance of narratives that look to redeem and empower their female protagonists, and the political statement made by those that refuse to. Through an exploration of language, imagery and metaphor in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing I hope to prove the importance of this form of literature. 

Throughout my research I have been interested in the way in which women’s writing represents female characters that have been neglected or damaged by the patriarchally constructed society in which they reside. Historically, women considered sexually, morally or socially tainted have been perceived as being de-valued, stigmatised by a society who, as a result, ostracises them. My interest lies in the modern women who are writing protagonists who have been personally and politically isolated in this way. Their narratives make social comment on the treatment of women in modern Western society in terms of feminist issues such as right to autonomy, right to reproductive rights and the right to sanctuary and safety and writing the ways in which their characters can be resilient and redeemed in narrative. Rather than writing about the societies that oppress, these authors are writing from inside the psyches of the oppressed, representing the biological and psychological reactions to the traumatic experiences that come with being a woman in a patriarchal society. 

Socially constructed themes of women’s tarnished purity, and their subsequent feelings of guilt, are imperative to the narratives of these three novels, and I will explore them in the context of the ways in which the female body and trauma are treated in contemporary fiction, deducing how ‘unconscious language… is replaced by a conscious language that can be repeated in a structured setting’, and how their neglect and subsequent healing processes, or lack of, are portrayed. The three female protagonists focussed upon in this dissertation have been tainted in various ways by the society in which they are placed; their depicted suffering due to traumatic life events are a product of the historical and contextual socio-political expectations and projections inflicted upon their sex within their respective narratives. I will now explain, in brief detail, each narrative in reference to its significance to a textual analysis of female specific traumatic experiences. 

In Surfacing, which takes place in Quebec, Canada, Atwood’s protagonist first leads the reader, along with her friends and family, to believe that she has abandoned both her husband and infant child. Through the layers of concealed and rewritten memories created in order to protect her mental fragility, as she searches for her presumed dead father in the wilderness surrounding the old family home, it comes to light that it is in fact an affair with a married man and a coerced, illegal abortion that she has been running from. The significance of Atwood’s Canadian heritage in connection to her character’s feelings of alienation as a result of her experiences, alienation from her own biological autonomy and self, are all prevalent in the way that the text is written, signifying notions of traumatic isolation.

Walker’s The Color Purple, set in the early twentieth century, concerns the story of Celie, a poor and uneducated African-American woman living in the post-slavery American South. When her mother falls ill, Celie is sexually abused by her presumed father, Pa, by whom she is twice impregnated. Having to hide the pregnancies for fear of shame, the children are removed from her care shortly after their births, presuming them to have been drowned. Suffering the same treatment from her husband Mr _____ to whom she is given by her father, she writes letters to God as a means of coping with the maltreatment she faces. 

McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing’s protagonist is also sexually abused by her Uncle, the husband of her aunt, at the age of thirteen. The lasting damage of this event and the ongoing grooming that her Uncle engages in begins to sculpt a narratorial relationship between sex and violence. As she attempts to come to terms with the inoperable brain tumour that seals the fate of her elder brother and frames her own narrative, she is also faced with the life-long task of attempting to reconcile the distance between herself and her Catholic mother. 

Trauma and trauma fiction

For Dr. Sandra L. Bloom (1999) Psychological Trauma Theory applies to the way a person’s ‘mind and body react… to… traumatic experience’. In studies of trauma, it is characterised by unrepresentability, inexpressibility, and its inability to be assimilated in to narrative. But for critic Cathy Caruth (1996), trauma is known only in the way it returns to haunt the individual, often many years after the original event. As a medical condition, trauma is the physical and psychological reaction experienced by an individual upon exposure to overwhelming situations and/or emotions, causing lasting damage and leaving them vulnerable to both psychological and physical reactions; ‘flashbacks, body memories, post‐traumatic nightmares and behavioural re-enactments’. Critic Anne Whitehead (2004) argues that the impact of trauma can only be adequately represented in literary form by mimicking its symptoms in a way that implies the collapse of temporality and chronology. Whitehead champions Trauma Fiction as a genre which conceptualises trauma, and is concerned with the ways in which psychological trauma is interpreted and portrayed in contemporary fiction. 

Leigh Gilmore (2001) describes memoir as representing ‘a “culture of confession” and a culture of testimony which Gayatri Spivak has defined as “the genre of the subaltern giving witness to oppression, to the less oppressed other” [that coexists] with a certain tension… insist[ing] on the centrality of speaking of pain’. The fictional characters, written by Atwood, Walker and McBride, act as creative witnesses to oppression of women, seen through the eyes of the authors, and trauma fiction is the medium through which they ‘speak’ of that societal pain. In its mimicry of the effects of trauma upon an individual through narrative, trauma fiction serves as an appropriate genre for the writing of trauma in its similarities to memoir. My focal novels, all written from the first person perspective, also reflect trauma’s centrality to the writing of memoir, incorporating notions of ‘self-representation’ with anxieties regarding ‘purity and guilt’. Trauma may also be considered appropriate for fictionalisation because it allows the writer to avoid ‘silencing or shaming effects’ that, Leigh argues, are imposed by autobiography. It is my opinion that writing trauma, a personal experience made public by the voice of a character, in the context of these novels, enhances the experience of the readership in that it provides an empathetic insight in to the political issues faced by women.

Individuals who have been overwhelmed by traumatic experiences are susceptible to various symptoms whilst their bodies and minds attempt to process trauma induced damage. Bloom states that early detachments during childhood may damage to all developmental systems, adding that, we as a species, ‘are particularly ill‐suited to having the people we are attached to also be the people who are violating us’. She also stresses the importance of ‘the fragmentation that accompanies traumatic experience’ when the human necessity ‘of order, for safety, for adequate protection’ is deprived. When experiencing trauma the human body can react in several ways. ‘Fight or flight’ is a response during which the ‘change in every area of basic function is so dramatic that in many ways, we are not the same people when we are terrified as when we are calm’, and the more danger that an individual is exposed to, the more sensitive they become to danger. Another, categorised as ‘learned helplessness’, describes a victim’s learned inability to combat traumatic experiences as a result of regular exposure. This is a behaviour defined by researchers as a ‘fail[iure] to escape from danger’, and if an individual is ‘subjected to a sufficient number of experiences teaching [them] that nothing they do will affect the outcome, [they are likely to] give up trying’. Attempts to combat such a state of mind must ‘focus on mastery and empowerment while avoiding further experiences of helplessness’. Perhaps one of the most poignant elements of trauma theory discussed in my analysis is the concept of ‘remembering under stress’ which Bloom, during which verbal and nonverbal memories are not as intricately integrated as during normal functionality. In cases of trauma, the memory works in a way that is abnormal in that the individual loses the capacity to apply words to experience and, as she explains, ‘without words, the mind shifts to a mode of thinking that is characterized by visual, auditory, olfactory, and kinaesthetic images, physical sensations, and strong feelings’.The result is a deep sensory imprinting of what neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux refers to as ‘emotional memory’. These memories can be almost impossible to erase, remaining in the individual’s memory in the form of ‘images [and] body sensations like smells, touch, tastes, and even pain, and strong emotions’. The engraving of these fragmented memories upon the brain can cause ‘flashbacks’: ‘[the] sudden intrusive re‐experiencing of a fragment of one of those traumatic, unverbalized memories’. Flashbacks are likely to occur when a person is upset, stressed, aroused or experiencing feeling which they might associate with previous traumatic experience. ‘Disassociation’, the act of ‘splitting [an] experience [off] from our feelings about that experience’, sometimes referred to as ‘emotional numbing’, from an event can allow a victim to avoid the feeling that would normally be expected under traumatic circumstances. Bloom also recognises the notion of ‘trauma addiction’, often seen in young individuals who have been consistently exposed to traumatic experience, whereby the individual becomes ‘addicted’ to their own endorphins. Finally, ‘behavioural re-enactment’ describes the likely event of a victim repeating, or reflecting upon others, the traumatising behaviours that they themselves have experienced. As a treatment for the damage inflicted by trauma, and its physical and psychological aftermath, Bloom suggests ‘sanctuary’, referring to the process involved in ‘creating safe environments that promote healing and sustain human growth… and health’. In other words, a large part of healing psychological and emotional trauma has a lot to do with making a victim feel safe, and providing them with a space in which to do so. 

Trauma fiction provides an alternative way of writing which separates itself from the traditional literary structures associated with patriarchal society and culture, creating an un-projected upon space for creative, feminised writing. L’écriture feminine, a discourse coined by French feminist writer and philosopher Hélène Cixous in her 1975 piece The Laugh of the Medusa, is a ‘specifically female discourse in which the female body and female difference is inscribed in language and text’. Cixous urges her readers to celebrate the ‘semi-mythical nature of femaleness and calls on women to reject male, rule-bound language in favour of language connecting body with text’, stating that ‘woman must write herself’. It is this notion of writing from the body which has had the biggest impact upon feminist writing, and trauma fiction’s imitation of the physical makes it an appropriate form with which to fictionalise the politics of the female body. Despite critical disparity as to the solidity of Cixous’ theorisation as a defined practice, with critics such as Elaine Showalter have likening L’écriture féminine to more of a ‘utopian possibility than a literary practice’, its sentiments as to women writers having their own style in which to break away from patriarchally influenced tradition is one of importance in the feminist literary sphere. Atwood insists on writing ‘the realities of women operating within a historically specific socio-culture, but the bodies she writes are nevertheless aversive carriers of a female language and thus of coded meanings’. The combination of literary discourses, such as Cixous’ desire for women to write ‘from the body’ and trauma fiction’s creative function of imitating the body and psyche through language and structure, provide the ‘coded meanings’ perfect for the artistic enactment of the trauma suffered by female protagonists. 

Writing from the body 

Atwood and McBride write from a first person perspective. This allows the reader to experience the narrative through the eyes of their anonymous female narrators, their bodies serving as ‘truth-text[s]’ through which trauma is explored as a literary experience. The decision to leave their characters unnamed could be considered an invitation for projection, but Gilmore considers the act of refusing to name a female character to represent a ‘refusal of [the] patriarchal regime of names [which] makes it possible for bodies to dissolve’ in to a narrative collated of actions and emotions. The removal of a name also removes ties of kinship, further isolating the narrator from their surrounding setting. For the purposes of trauma fiction, a character with no name is defined by their traumatised self; it is then the purpose of the author’s writing to build an identity which either challenge or succumb to trauma. Alice Walker’s epistolary form provides the reader with more information regarding the character, on account of her retelling of conversations that she overhears: ‘I can’t let you have Nettie. She too young. Don’t know nothing but what you tell her… But I can let you have Celie. She the oldest anyway’. Here, in Celie’s seventh letter, is the first time that she is named. Her anonymity for the first part of the novel, coinciding with her being given away to an older man so that she might fulfil his need for a wife, suggests that she is defined more as a commodity than a daughter as she is passed from one man to another. Critics have often considered an inner monologue style of writing, such as features in Surfacing and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, to be symbolic of the women’s entrapment in their own minds. Unable to verbalise their trauma, they are contained within their own heads by the narrative. In Celie’s case, externalising her traumatic narrative by writing letters, she is able to ‘create a resistant narratological version of events with ultimately preserves her subjectivity and voice’. 

McBride writes unusually, in short sentences with frequent full stops and occasional commas, to create a stream of consciousness which begins as a narration from within the protagonist’s mother’s womb: ‘Walking up corridors up the stairs. Are you alright? Will you sit, he says. No. I want, she says. To see my son. Smell from dettol through her skin…. Her heart going pat. Going dumdumdum’. As a foetus, whilst listening to her mother’s heartbeat, she narrates the scene of her mother visiting her son, the protagonist’s brother, in hospital to be told that he has an inoperable brain tumour. McBride’s inclusion of a pre-birth narrative suggests the vicarious experience of her mother’s trauma at her son’s illness at this developmental stage foreshadows its influence upon the protagonist throughout the text. McBride’s framing of the novel with the news of the narrator’s brother’s brain tumour seems to justify the way in which her thoughts are written, ‘mimicking’ the fragmentation of her thoughts as if they have been permanently damaged by the trauma undergone by her mother before her birth. The only time McBride writes her protagonist’s speech, rather than her thoughts, is when she is required to tell her brother that he is going to die. When her brother dies, she stops being a sibling and becomes an only child, isolated from the outside world as she internalises, through McBride’s creative use of language, the traumatic event of losing him. McBride’s experimentation with syntax ultimately allows for the literary description of ‘the parts of life that cannot be described through any other form’, she herself defining language as a ‘big part’ of portraying the personal in fiction.

‘When am I going to get well?

You’re not.

I’m sorry to. 

Am I

this silent moment you say,

Am I going to die? 

You are

Clearer in this moment than you have ever been’

Margaret Atwood also employs language structure and punctuation to artistically emulate thought disrupted by psychological trauma. When her protagonist begins to recall the memories from which she has been disassociated, the way in which her thoughts are presented begins to change as she descends further in to them. Here, having climbed out of the water to rest, the protagonist recalls a vision she has experienced whilst diving in search for the cave drawings that she believes her father was searching for prior to his disappearance.

‘I knew when it was, it was in a bottle curled up, staring out at me like a cat pickled; it had huge jelly eyes and fins instead of hands, fish gills, I couldn’t let it out, it was dead already, it had drowned in air. It was there when I woke up, suspended in the air above me like a chalice, an evil grail and I thought, Whatever it I, part of myself or a separate creature, I killed it. It wasn’t a child but it could have been one, I didn’t allow it’

Atwood’s liberal use of commas and semi-colons creates elongated sentences which almost resemble the Freudian therapy practice of free association. This is effective in that it immerses the reader in what could arguably be referred to as a visual flashback experienced by the novel’s protagonist. The lack of chronology that the structure lends to the sentence is also reflective of the layers of traumatic memories which have been suppressed in to her traumatised subconscious. The narrator’s brother almost drowned in a lake after escaping from the play pen erected for him in the garden and she has recurring flashbacks, throughout the novel, of what she understands to be her brother, sinking in the water: ‘My brother was under the water, face upturned, eyes open and unconscious, sinking gently; air was coming out of his mouth’. Despite her not being born yet, she expresses the belief that ‘an unborn baby has its eyes open and can look out through the walls of the mother’s stomach, like a frog in a jar’, suggesting a similar hypothesis to that of McBride’s narrator in that the character has experienced her mother’s trauma, stemmed from saving her son from this near death experience. Her reference to a ‘frog in a jar’ in conjunction with water is also significant, as it bears reference to the layering of past events present in this extract. Later in the novel, the narrator recalls a time when her brother kept ‘creatures’ in jars in the garden shed, wishing to free them and naïve to the realities of her actions, the narrator throws the jars into the same lake. The horror that she expresses as an adult at the fact of their having ‘drowned in air’ is another possible explanation for what she has envisioned. However, despite the images’ similarity, this passage can also be read as a traumatic flashback that relates to her abortion. The image that she sees is described as being ‘in a bottle curled up’ and having ‘fish gills’. Although this is concurrent with previous descriptionsof the creatures in jars, it could also be applied to the image of an unborn foetus gestating inside the womb. With the traumatic atmosphere of the memories reflected in Atwood’s presentation of language, the layering of interpretations as to the source of the guilt provoking images represents the fragmentation of the character’s psyche, therefore effectively portraying her traumatised state.

Writing female sexuality

Writing in 1977, critic Kate Millett commented that ‘coitus can scarcely be said to take place in a vacuum… it is set so deeply within the larger context of human affairs that it serves as a charged microcosm to which culture subscribes’. The taboo nature of writing female sexuality, especially sexual abuse in contemporary fiction, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing was rejected for nine years before its publication, is amplified in these novels by the nature of their focus upon young, vulnerable women, and the harsh way in which the first person form allows readers to assimilate emotionally with their experiences. The ways in which the authors employ language to accentuate the innocence of their protagonists effectively heightens the horror of the abuse, and subsequent damage, inflicted upon them. 

McBride’s writing of her thirteen year old character’s first sexual encounter with her Uncle is littered with childlike references so that the reader is constantly reminded of the heinous crime being committed. Her sexual awakening coincides with her being sexually abused by her Uncle who, throughout the course of the book and as a direct result of this initial act, will have a detrimental and lasting effect upon her psychologically. Her childlike interpretation of being ‘scalded’ after her claims that he is ‘ashamed to have’ kissed her, creates an extremely pathetic pretext to his next advance. Having fled in an attempt to rationalise the previous events, a scene which I will discuss in a later chapter, she returns to the house ‘wet the whole way through’, returning to the encounter which she, and perhaps the reader, believed to be over. At first the narrator claims that ‘he did not get me after all’, but changes her story in the immediately preceding line, professing that she is ‘lying’ and that ‘he did’. In regard to the narrator’s hesitation, McBride confessed during an interview, showing the difficulty that comes with writing traumatic narrative, that ‘[she was] trying not to let that happen in the story, and then [realised] that it would’. This childish, reluctant, introduction is mirrored in the way that McBride has chosen to signify its end. After the encounter, the narrator describes how ‘he put [her] down’ and, as she watches him ‘put his thing back in’ to his ‘men’s trousers’ she recalls a time when she was little and was ‘always wanting to pee standing’. The atmosphere of innocence cast over the previous sexual interaction by her inability to even apply vaguely appropriate vocabulary to her abuser’s anatomy, and her childish references to what she sees before her, only add to the abhorrent nature of the scene’s content. The fact that ‘puts [her] down’, as one would a child, and asks ‘Do you feel sick?’ is a paradoxically parental behaviour by nature, reminding the reader of the further breach of trust, in terms, not only of his engagement in sexual activity with a minor, but his being a parent and familial figure too. The encounter itself is one of sexual domination, described by Millett (1977) as ‘perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides [sexuality’s] most fundamental concept of power’, on two levels. The first is in physical invasion of her body, ‘I could hear him open me. Graze me opening my legs’, in the aggressive manner attributed to patriarchy in sexual literature Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics. ‘Graze’ implies his rough handling of her, and his ‘opening’ of her legs sounds methodical, almost mechanical. Secondly, she is dominated by him in terms of language, despite the reader experiencing the event through the narrator’s immediate thoughts she is silent during the encounter. 

This child’s perception of sexual abuse, most notably the use of ‘thing’ in reference to her abuser’s penis, is also featured throughout Walker’s text. On the first page of the novel Celie writes of her abuse.

‘He never had a kine word to say to me. Just say You gonna do what your mammy wouldn’t. First he put his thing up against my hip and sort of wiggle it around… Then he push his thing inside my pussy. When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it.’

Celie’s colloquial, misspelled and fragmented account of what her presumed father has done to her is sympathetic in that it highlights not only her lack of education and innocent young age, but also, as with the previous extract, her inability to be able to completely verbalise her abuse. The word ‘pussy’ is an uncomfortable choice, in the context of a young character’s writing, and the impact of it being the first letter addressed ‘To God’ only heightens the pathos of the event. The violence of this first rape is also significant, coupled with the warning, presumably made by Pa after the assault, ‘You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy’. However, despite this threat, and the effective silencing of Celie when he tells her that she ‘better not tell nobody’, critic Martha J. Cutter (2000) argues that the epistolary form of the novel resembles the character’s rebellion against such isolation. By writing her experience down and sharing it with God, Celie begins to ‘reconfigure the rhetorical situation and create a resistant heroine’s text in which she has a narratological existence as the author [or] subject of her own story’.The practice of writing about her traumatic experiences, creating a narrative, Cutter argues, represents an act of externalisation, so the rape might define her but then the entire novel acts as a cathartic process for her overcoming what’s been done to her.

In the case of Atwood’s writing of sexuality, critic Gina Wisker (2012) describes the representations of sex in Surfacing as ‘artificial, pornographic spectacle’ while Gloria Onley calls them depersonalised and alien. The protagonist’s relationship with Joe, a boyfriend who accompanies her with another couple, Anna and David, to Quebec, unknowingly in search for the protagonist’s missing father, is one of detached companionship on her part. Atwood’s descriptions of the couple in bed together are, as suggested by Wisker and Onley, far from intimate. Waking up next to Joe, on their first morning in Quebec, the narrator finds herself trying to ‘decipher whether or not [she] love[s] him’ as, she argues, ‘it’s best to have the answer worked out in advance’. This pragmatic perspective of falling in love with someone provides an insight in to the current, emotionally numbed, state of the character’s mind as she continues to surmise that: ‘It would be nice if he meant something more to me. The fact that he doesn’t makes me sad: no one has since my husband. A divorce is like an amputation, you survive but there [is] less of you’. When she refers to the ‘divorce’ we can assume that she is in fact referring to the breakdown of her previous relationship and her abortion, although the character herself does not yet realise it. Therefore, her reference to a ‘divorce’ being ‘like an amputation’ is to the unborn child being amputated from her physically and emotionally, the whole event and context of the relationship currently disassociated from her memory. The divorce appears justification enough as to why she is so tentative in her feelings for Joe, however in hindsight, as readers we can divulge that her tentativeness is a symptom of her emotionally traumatised state.

‘In the early morning Joe wakes me; his hands at any rate are intelligent, they move over me delicately as a blind man’s reading braille, skilled, moulding me like a vase, they’re learning me; they repeat patterns he’s tried before, they’ve found out what works, and my body responds that way too, anticipates him, educated, crisp as a typewriter. It’s best when you don’t know them’.

Atwood’s description of their interaction is methodical, the ‘repeat[ed] patterns’ conveyed as predictable rather than passionate. Joe’s listed actions build anticipation for her final word on the matter, or for the event. However, instead of summarising her affections, the narrator feigns all interest. In this extract, Joe is defined as the one who is actively ‘reading’ and ‘moulding’, therefore defining the narrator as a passive object, there for his pleasure and his curiosity. Her apparent emotional ‘alienation’, to quote Onley, from Joe is accentuated by the lack of emotion with which the scene is written and her implication of indifference, even fantasising about her preference for an alternative partner. 

After the character suffers a psychological breakdown as a result of her traumatisation, she becomes spiritually assimilated with her natural surroundings, identifying with the animals of the wilderness as a means of coping and coming to terms with her traumatic experience. This time Atwood avoids using Joe’s name, ‘He still doesn’t understand, he thinks he has won, act of his flesh a noose roped around my neck, leash’. Defining him only in terms of his gender and physical form, ‘he’ and ‘his’, establishes him as ‘other’ to the female narrator. Her mention of a ‘noose’ also suggests connotations of enslavement through sex, as if her giving herself to him is an act that will sacrifice her freedom. It is this enslavement, metaphorically linked to Americanism, mechanism, materialism and most significantly masculinity that her new ‘self’ fears. This interaction takes place after she leads Joe out of the house, to the side of the lake, and is distinctly primal. 

 ‘I lie down, keeping the moon on my left and the absent sun on my right. He kneels, he is shivering, the leaves under and around us are damp from the dew, or is it the lake, soaking up through the rock and sand, we are near the …he wants it to be like the city, baroque scrollwork, intricate as a computer, but I’m impatient, pleasure is redundant. The animals don’t have pleasure. I guide him in to me, it’s the right season, I hurry’ 

The presence of the moon, symbolising fertility, and the narrator’s indication that it is the ‘right season’, implies that she will conceive underneath it. Now, still only referring to Joe in terms of his masculinity, Atwood’s protagonist takes a much less passive role as she actively ‘guide[s] him in to [her]’, rejecting stereotypes of sexual passivity typically applied to women. This scene is also one of a cyclical nature in the context of the novel’s narrative. Having seen the images that have helped her to repair the fragmented thoughts of her unborn child at the bottom of the lake, it is now, upon the lake’s water that has ‘soak[ed] up through the rock and sand’, that she now wishes to conceive again, on her own terms and in a situation that she is in control of. Although her bringing him outside to the lake could be considered a ‘pornographic spectacle’, as Wisker has commented, to dismiss the scene as pornographic is to ignore the spiritual, therapeutic value of the encounter for the protagonist. Despite ‘pleasure [being] redundant’, Atwood’s description captures the character’s selfish desperation to repair the psychological damage she has suffered since the abortion. The scene might be considered ‘alien’ in that it appears to define a sexual binary, almost of species, ‘he wants it to be like the city… the animals don’t have pleasure’, between the male and female character, but I would argue that this encounter focuses on the protagonist’s reclaiming of her sexuality for the purpose of conception. 

Writing the female body

Margaret Atwood’s formative years ‘coincided with the emergence of ‘Second Wave’ North American feminism, and her fiction is reflective of the changing climate [in which] Women’s Liberation first became a political issue’. The 1960s and 1970s brought ‘a period of intense and renewed interest in identity formation among Canadians and women in particular that, in turn, fuelled political decisions that would reframe the experience of being female and/or Canadian’. One of the many goals of the Second Wave feminist movement was to campaign for women’s right to control over their own bodies, in terms of obtaining contraception rights and access to safe, legal abortions. However, critic Jeff J. Koloze has likened locating Canadian novels concerned with abortion to an ‘archaeological dig’ in that ‘actions of literary criticism frequently obscure, minimize, or lack references to abortion’. Atwood’s writing about abortion, which is itself obscured by her protagonist’s traumatic symptoms, is therefore significant in that it represents a concentrated atmosphere of defiance that recognises the importance of vocalising issues which critically affect women, such as abortion laws, so that perceptions may begin to be changed. Here, I will explore Atwood’s portrayal of the traumatic aftermath of her protagonist’s unelected abortion. 

The decriminalisation of abortion in Canada occurred in January of 1988, more than a decade after the publication of Atwood’s novel. The significance therefore of her protagonist’s situation becomes notably political as she recalls her ordeal for the first time in what is described as ‘not even a hospital’ without ‘that sanction of legality, official procedures’.

‘A house it was, shabby front room with magazines, purple runner on the hall floor, vines and blossoms, the smell of lemon polish, furtive doors and whispers, they wanted you out fast. Pretense of the non-nurse… from flower to flower, her criminal hand on my elbow… I couldn’t accept it, that mutilation, ruin I’d made, I needed a different version.’

Referring to her altered memory of the procedure as a ‘collage, pasting over the wrong parts’, the fragmentation of her memories is represented in the way that Atwood grammatically presents this passage; images are listed as the narrator experiences them and the text begins to represent the character’s stream of consciousness. Whilst remembering under stress, the non-verbal account that she provides of the abortion, ‘the smell’, ‘on my elbow’ and ‘whispers’, only discusses her sensory perceptions or ‘sensory imprint’ of the procedure. The image of the narrator being ‘de-flowered’ implies that she is being spoiled in the sense that a women’s innocence is considered to be taken once she has lost her virginity. It is as if this woman’s adult innocence has been tarnished by the ‘criminal hands’ of which she is at mercy. Atwood’s description of the hands as ‘criminal’ could also be considered a political comment upon situations forced upon women who need or desire abortions that the government are not willing to grant legally, therefore forcing Canadian women to resort to procedures which are illegal and perhaps higher in risk as a result of their illegitimacy. In the same sense, ‘mutilation’ might not only be a reference to the mutilation of, not only the foetus, but her own flesh in an apparently non-sterile environment, but also the mutilation of her psychological coherence as this scene is the catalyst for further mental deterioration as the narrative progresses. The necessity for a different version of events appears to be imperative in order to cope with the trauma she suffers.

In his critical analysis of Surfacing, Ronald Granofsky (1990) observed that the abortion reflects ‘a collective violation that the narrator relates to the 'American' way of life and that stems from human intervention into the natural order, a system of abuse macrocosmically paralleling the narrator's individual victimization as a woman’. However to assimilate the psychological plight of Atwood’s protagonist with that of the victimisation of Canada, contradicts the fact that, legally, the abortion itself stands for an ‘othering’ of the character from Canadian nationalism. This therefore rejects the common critical tendency ‘for things female to disappear into things national’. When she undergoes an abortion that is illegal in Canada, she becomes a political outcast to the nation in that the abortion criminalises her.

Closely interlinked with feminist interpretation of Atwood’s work is the thematic reference to the political atmosphere of Canadian-English nationality and identity. The ‘spiritualised sense of space’ that is ‘already suffering the effects of civilisation’ depicted in Surfacing is a product of Atwood’s signature trope of ‘Wilderness’and her distinctively ‘Canadian’ way of writing. Critic Coral Ann Howells states that, geographically, ‘wilderness is defined as wild uncultivated land, which in Canada includes vast tracts of forest with innumerable lakes’. Howells continues to say that ‘the myth of wilderness as empty space is of course a white myth, for the wilderness was not really empty; it was only indecipherable to Europeans’. The idea of a space being viewed as ‘other’, and therefore blank in terms of its availability to be projected upon, is reflected by Atwood upon her protagonist, when her lover demands that she terminate the pregnancy. This notion of a man projecting upon a space that he considers ‘blank’ reflects the notion of wilderness being a mythical empty space and applies it to the protagonist’s womb. The identity imposed upon Canada as ‘uncultivated’, or a blank space leaves it symbolically unprotected from the projections of the colonial eye, and the protagonist unprotected from the patriarchal gaze that metaphorically and physically invades her. It is through this analogy that I will later return to, in comparing the notion of the invaded female body to the land in which she might find refuge, when society fails to offer physical and spiritual rehabilitation.

The protagonist’s re-remembered version of events, which she tells family and friends, that she has abandoned her husband and infant child is perhaps more shocking, ‘What upset them was the way I did it, so suddenly, and then running off and leaving my husband and child… Leaving my child, that was the unpardonable sin; it was no use trying to explain to them why it wasn’t really mine’, but Atwood presents it as a less painful memory for her protagonist to cope with. The character’s ‘real’ narrative, the reality of her abortion, serves as a comment upon the demonization of abortion as a means of inflicting patriarchal control upon the female body. Critic Hope Jennings (2008) argues that political focus upon the autonomy of women’s bodies and the inherent ‘mythological power’ subscribed to the womb creates ‘feminist fantasies of matriarchal power’. Jennings’s theorisation provides an explanation for the anxiety and disempowerment felt by Atwood’s protagonist. The pressures borne from such matriarchal fantasies causing her memories to fragment as a means of protecting her from the fact that she has, by giving in to the abortion, rejected the socially glorified status of motherhood. To apply Jennings’ further proposal that the ‘privileging or re-appropriation of the maternal body as a source of feminine power [is] problematic’ to Atwood’s narrative, I would argue that the source of the narrator’s trauma can be found in the social privileging of female autonomy. The abortion has a damaging effect on her psychological wellbeing and her internalisation of the event, a result of her feelings of guilt, accentuates her traumatised state. 

Writing abuse

In her work regarding trauma theory, Bloom states that ‘in many situations considered to be traumatic, [such as abusive relationships], the victim is helpless… As a species, we cannot tolerate helplessness ‐ it goes against our instinct for survival’. However, the abnormal conditioning of an individual to traumatic experiences allows them to ‘learn’ helplessness. This is especially significant in the case of young children, and in the case of both Walker and McBride’s protagonists.

When Celie’s step-son, Harpo, asks her ‘How come you stubborn?’, her reply answers the question that no character ever asks, ‘How do you cope?’. In reference to the beatings that she receives from her husband, she replies, ‘I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree’. This reference encapsulates Celie’s disassociation from her ‘self’ from her physical form as a means of protecting herself psychologically from traumatic harm. Paradoxically, this has the effect of fragmenting her sense of self in to one who is ‘stubborn’ and one who is a victim. When Harpo asks Celie how he can make his wife more like her, passive and obedient, her response is one that is abnormal in regard to her usual submissiveness. 

‘I like Sofia but she don’t act like me at all… I think bout this when Harpo ast me what he ought to do to her to make her mind. I don’t mention how happy he is now. How three years pass and he still whistle and sing. I think bout how every time I jump when Mr_____ call me, she look surprise. And like she pity me… Beat her. I say’ 

By telling Harpo to beat Sofia, as Mr____ beats her, it could be argued that Celie is projecting her feelings of or desire to carry out behavioural re-enactment upon her, fulfilling her needs vicariously through Harpo’s maltreatment of Sofia. As Bloom states in her theorisation, ‘a victim is both helpless and powerless, and… helplessness is a noxious human experience. Human beings will do anything to avoid feeling powerless’. In her powerless state, too conditioned as a victim to be able to carry out the re-enactment herself, Celie carries out the transference of her victimisation by taking the only opportunity presented to her. As a victimised character, it is the only outlet of frustration and anger provided to her. 

When A Girl is a Half-formed Thing’s protagonistleaves the family home to attend college, she encounters a multitude of lovers whilst out ‘harlotting’ with her college roommate. McBride’s portrayal of her thoughts regarding her new life, ‘In the new world I am do this every time I can… No just leave the hall light on and take my trousers down’, suggest in their recklessness that she is now feeding her ‘addiction’ to trauma to which she has a learned sexual connection. Sex is also, arguably, the only avenue through which she can feel as if she has power and control, if she decides that she is giving herself to these men, allowing them to sleep with her, she is more empowered than when she was abused. It is as if, for her, ‘some nice young man’s hands up my skirt in the toilets open up my thighs. Mind’, these reckless sexual acts act as a coping mechanism for the traumatic burden of both the abuse and her brother’s impending death. At the same time however, she allows her body and mind to be contaminated further so that they might block her traumatic memories. Perhaps McBride is suggesting that the opening of her mind offers a brief moment of relief, in that she doesn’t have to think about the trauma that is specific to her brother or Uncle during that time and can rely purely on her senses to distract her. 

Unlike Celie, who is passed from one abuser to the next, McBride’s protagonist doesn’t see her abuser again until the funeral of her estranged Grandfather years later. The encounter confuses her, making her feel ‘awkward… Worser than thirteen’ as she attempts to confront her Uncle while he tries to rationalise his actions to her, to no avail. 

‘I’ve had enough. Because it’s all going merry round and round. In my head. And. But. Still. I won’t say any more. I can’t. But. Will you kiss me coming out of my mouth before I know what I’ve said at all. Will you kiss me?... Now I see. He wants to… And he kisses me til my mouth is sore is red with it. Hurts I remember’

McBride’s allowance of her protagonist to once again fall victim to her Uncle is exemplary of the helplessness that the character has learned to associate with his presence. Her instigation of the escalation of the situation, asking ‘will you kiss me’ is also a signifier of her being ‘addicted’ to trauma as Bloom states is possible. She craves the feeling, despite knowing that it is wrong and the memory ‘hurt[ing]’ her. However there is a sense of ambiguity as to whether it is the kiss that hurts her or the memory that it evokes, conveying the confusion she suffers as a result of being abused at such a young and impressionable age, learning helplessness towards it. McBride’s use nursery rhyme-like ‘merry round and round’, suggests that she has regressed, in his presence, in to her younger self, in which she learned helplessness towards her Uncle. He also repeats the behaviour of babying her after a sexualised encounter, ‘Are you alright? He take my hand’, mirroring the last incident when she was much younger, perhaps as a means of re-establishing his status as the male, and therefore dominant, party. 

Walker and McBride’s incorporation of symptoms of trauma within their narratives signify their protagonists’ suffering and highlight their vulnerability. Their writing, while suggesting the long term damaging effects of sexual and psychological abuse in a narrative that is creatively palatable for their readership, portrays the darker side of feminist issues in a way that can only be achieved through the medium of fiction. 

Writing sanctuary

Ronnie Janoff-Bulman has shown that the experience of trauma shatters, often irrecoverably, some very basic assumptions about an individual’s world, relationships with others and their basic sense of place and identity in the world. It is therefore significant that Bloom describes traumatic reactions as causing change in the individual, either in their sense of self or in their perceptions of what defines them. 

Walker defines the importance of a spiritually feminised space in which women can find a space with which they feel connected. When her protagonist, Celie, is asked to describe what God looks like she provides the typically imagined Christian image of a ‘big and old and tall and greybearded and white’ God, her understanding is shaped by both the racial and sexual oppression that permeates her world. Celie’s image of God is, as one conceived in the same terms as those she is abused, is one that invokes pathos, accentuating the hopeless nature of her character. However, her companion Shug challenges her learned ideology by offering a new, more reciprocal spiritual analogy: ‘God ain’t a he or a she, but a It... I believe God is everything… Everything that ever is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it’. This alternative theological interpretation is more representative of an energy force than an old man in the sky, a genderless ideology within which the two women can find a space with which to identify. It is common for critics to condemn Second Wave feminism for its being ‘built upon the theoretical foundation of patriarchy and cultural anti-female sexism and misogyny’. They argued that the limitations of such a foundation meant that, instead of aiming for gender equality, the movement looked to replace the current patriarchal power. Writing in 1982, towards the end of the movement, Walker is looking, not to replace the current patriarchal power, but is encouraging women to search for their own point of reference in their beliefs in terms of social power structure. Celie’s attempt to connect with a version of God that is more relevant to her than the patriarchal society in which she resides is an example of this. 

It is this notion of empowerment in renewed identification that Atwood’s protagonist desires in order to heal her fragmented mind. Left alone on the island upon which her mother and father’s house is built, she goes through the ritualistic process of cleansing the building of herself the material objects significant to her past and the pain she has come to accept by destroying them: ‘I use a knife to slash once through the blankets, the sheets and the beds and the tents… these husks are not needed any longer, I abolish them, I have to clear a space’. Having rid herself of the material object significant to her old ‘self’ she washes in the lake, ‘leaving [her] false body floated on the surface, a cloth decoy’. Having completed the ritual she finds physical sanctuary by ‘hollow[ing] a lair near the woodpile’ as an animal might. Her regression in to a psychologically primitive state as a means of re-claiming her ‘self’ of her old life and traumatic experiences can also be interpreted as a stratagem for removing herself from the patriarchally constructed world that has damaged her. 

In her work, Vandana Shiva acknowledges ‘a tradition… that has viewed nature and women only as a resource’ and advocates the ‘possibility of viewing the world as an active subject, not merely as a resource to be manipulated and appropriated’. Having been coerced in to an abortion, Surfacing’s protagonist’s body becomes a site which has been ‘manipulated’ for the convenience of her former lover, an unseen figure of patriarchal control. Shiva also describes ‘women’s bodies as sites of regenerative power are, in the eyes of capitalist patriarchy, among the last colonies. These sites of creative regeneration are transformed into ‘passive’ sites’. The colonisation or control of women’s bodies to the convenience of men devalues them as biological resources fit for, Shiva argues, manipulation. The anxiety that she experiences regarding the coerced termination is portrayed as having a lasting effect upon her mentality regarding childbirth, ‘Nobody must find out or they will do that to me again, strap me to the death machine, emptiness machine, legs in the metal framework, secret knives. This time I won’t let them’, and Atwood meets the question of whether or not it was the abortion itself, or the loss of her potential child, that has caused such a traumatic response with ambiguity. The use of mechanical, industrial, aggressive language, ‘death machine’, ‘metal’, ‘knives’, signifies again the division of that which is mechanical, male and ‘bad’ against herself and the natural world, and the sensory quality of the recollection, again, exhibits the traumatic nature of the memory. The protagonist’s expressed wish ‘never [to] teach [her new, potential child] any words’ is also a signifier of her desire to remove herself from that which she relates to patriarchy and the source of her traumatisation. Whereas it is that world that removed her from the path of motherhood, the non-interventional natural world would have allowed her to continue the pregnancy. This is also a notion which Atwood has discussed in interview, commenting in January 2016 that ‘forest childbirth’ would be the outcome of totalitarian governments taking ‘interest in women’s reproductive rights’ in which the agenda is the shutting down of women’s reproductive rights in Western society. 

It was Virginia Woolf (1929) who stated that a woman must have ‘a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. If ‘writing fiction’ is to be interpreted as a women’s ability to be productive/functional within her own space that is outside of or separate from patriarchal discourse, the notion of Atwood’s protagonist’s need to ‘clear [herself] a space’ is imperative to her gaining psychological peace so that she can begin to heal. I would also argue that ‘a room of one’s own’ applies to the psychological ‘space’ gained by Celie and Atwood’s unnamed protagonist in their searching for a new reference point of identification. Both characters find sanctuary in nature, a space free from the stigmatisation abortion or domestic abuse. Celie finds an alternative belief system in which she can identify, therefore establishing her own identity outside of the patriarchal society by which she has been neglected and abused, and Atwood’s protagonist in the safety of the wilderness which allows her to piece together the fragmented memories of her traumatic experience. This, in turn, allows her to psychologically regress in to an animalistic state so that she might rebuild the fragments of her recent past. 

This final chapter discusses the use of water in literature and the literary connection between water and women, exploring notions of sanctuary in conjunction with the fate of McBride’s protagonist when she is not afforded the provision of narratological sanctuary.

Women and water

The meaning of water in literature is one of a fluid nature. In Christian ideology, water tends to take on symbolic notions of healing and purification, whereas literary references to reflection evoke an alternative tone. In 1677, Milton condemned Eve for admiring her own reflection whilst in the Garden of Eden, describing her as ‘pined with desire’ (IV.466) at the sight of her face in the water. The book of Proverbs, Chapter 31, Verse 30 declares that ‘beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised’. This image of Eve, transfixed by her own eyes in the water is reminiscent of the Greek myth of Narcissus, two versions of which end in Narcissus dying or committing suicide because he cannot obtain the beauty he sees in his reflection. In his essay, Water and the Fallen Woman in Victorian Literature and Art, Richard Broad argues that ‘water is intrinsically linked to the fallen woman’, performing the common literary function of contaminating the surrounding society. It was also common practice for Victorian authors to drown prostitutes, or women considered ‘sexually compromised’. The importance of the historical changeability of the agreed symbolic meaning of water in relation to women is one of importance due to its poignant presence in McBride’s narrative. The symbolic and metaphorical link between water and Christian imagery in McBride’s novel is particularly significant in regard to this novel. The character has been raised by a militantly Catholic mother, and is referred to as a ‘banished daughter of Eve’ by McBride throughout the novel. Read with hindsight, this reference to Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden serves as a foreshadowing of her tragic fate; the punishment of mortality that was subscribed to Eve for her curiosity. 

The following extract occurs after her Uncle has kissed her for the first time, before she returns home only to be sexually assaulted. Upon approaching the lake, McBride’s protagonist literally ‘fall[s] down’, reminiscent of the language attributed to sexually promiscuous women during the Victorian era, the language of the passage acting as a means of solidifying in the reader the horror of the previous scene despite the character’s own confusion. Again, phrases such as ‘I am almost too old for that’ and ‘I should be. I am not. Yet.’ highlight the fact that this young girl being prematurely dragged in to the world of adult sexuality. 

‘I see the white and clear. Rising up of the waters. Running round my feet. My gravel feet. My earthbound feet that feel the sway of it. Water. Of the world that’s changing now no changed. It’s changed and this is looking back. The past a flash front. That mix. Knowing what how I should do be say’

Here, McBride describes the water as ‘white and clear’, signifying its purity. The waters surrounding the girl’s feet, and the repetition of her ‘earthbound feet’ and ‘gravel feet’, harks back to biblical images of Christ’s washing of feet, accentuating the suggestion that the water is purifying her body. The thematic mention of change in this extract is also significant in that water is ever flowing and can therefore be considered a symbol of changeability, suggesting that this scene marks a turning point in the narrative and in the character’s life. McBride’s mention of ‘the world that’s changing’ also signifies the turning point, a lamentable coming of age, which this moment represents.

‘Take hold. I fear not. Hear not. See not. Feel the rap on my knuckles of the water going in. It soak my coat up. Up my leg up. Feel it there inside my thigh. So cold. So ice and glass and see through things and friendly hands.’ 

Imagery of purification is now combined with language of a sexualised nature. The water is described as if caressing her body, up her legs and inside her thighs, in a way that is reminiscent of the way she has been touched in the previous scene, discussed in ‘Writing Sexuality’, by her abuser. As a result of this, the presence of the water contributes an alternative atmosphere of corruption. This contrast in imagery, both purifying and corrupting, lends a sense of foreboding regarding the young girl’s sexual future. The ‘friendly hands’ could be interpreted as her welcoming the relief of this natural baptism or they could be a remnant of her sexual confusion. It is as if the little girl has been deceived, she went looking for the water to purify her of impure thoughts and she has instead been contaminated by the dark waters so interlinked with contamination, vanity and corruption and been consumed by sexual darkness, the tragedy of her fate further accentuated by the sense of foreboding created by McBride’s symbolic inclusion of water as a motif throughout the narrative. 

Throughout be the text, McBride portrays her protagonist as a damaged victim. Bloom has commented in her theory that, adults, when under stress, who have been brutalised as children may resort to behaviours that help induce some kind of alteration in the opioid system… [which] can include… risk‐taking behaviour, compulsive sexuality, involvement in violent activity, bingeing and purging, and of course, drug addiction’. McBride’s incorporation of these behaviours in to the text accentuate the tragic sense of the protagonist’s character, as she takes risks with her compulsive sexuality and worsening alcoholism. Her addiction to trauma is the signifier of her psychological decline, and the lead up to her suicide. In the final moments of the novel, she returns to the water: ‘Across the lake the lights of cars and bikes and roaring off somewhere I’m here. In the dark… Calm and kind’. There, she meets a boy, whom she has been intimate with previously, who has been ‘waiting… days and days’ for her to return. The notable violence of the sexual assault that ensues, paralleled with her mother’s reaction to the protagonist’s ‘torn out mouth… ripped out hair… puke vile blood clothes holes with mud grass on’ of asking ‘How can [she] do this to [her] brother to me?’, accentuates the complete isolation of the character. As a result of this altercation she flees the family home, leaving her mother and abuser behind, returning to the lake. 

Following this series of deplorable events, McBride’s protagonist is at her most vulnerable. The lake represents the symbolic birth place of her downfall, where the sexual and psychological damage first began to consume her. She now returns to the waters: ‘And under water lungs grow. Flowing in. Like fire torch. Like air is. That choke of. Eyes and nose and throat. Where uncle did. No. Gone away’. In her final moments, her abuse is what dominates her thoughts as the scene takes on a reminiscent, darker, atmosphere from the earlier scene that saw the water 'caress' her as an innocent child. The addition of a childlike rhyme, sang with her dead brother in her own mind, ‘Say yours I say I’m scared now. No you tell me. You never understand. And you say. Say it once. Hail holy queen. Poor banished children of Eve and you say oh sacred heart of Jesus I place all my trust in thee', is also a chilling tribute to the abused child that she was never able to escape, encased within her internal narrative. McBride’s ending suggests, on the one hand, that the water touching her 'where uncle did' is perhaps metaphorically filling the space that has been tainted by his touch. However, her stream of consciousness could simply be drawing attention to her fighting the thoughts, refusing the last of her 'self' not to be entrapped by thoughts of her invasive traumatic memories. Her final comments, before the books ends, 'There now. That was just life... My name is gone’ suggest notions of erasure, but McBride writes ambiguously as to whether the reader is meant to apply that erasure to the erasure of the protagonist’s trauma, celebrating her relief, or the erasure of a young, helpless girl. Her death implies a sense of peace for the character, but McBride leaves her readers with the burden of her traumatisation, the injustice of her helplessness, and the horrific cyclical nature of her drowning herself in the lake where the detrimental, symbolic sexual contamination of her body began.

If McBride intended her protagonist to be one who evokes pathos in her readers for vulnerable, abused and damaged young women, why has she subscribed, what can be ascertained through historical literary discourse as a whore's death? Surfacing and The Color Purple end with their protagonists finding psychological, spiritual sanctuary in nature a feminised space and, as a result, in themselves. Heightening the characters’ consciousness of self is empowering, although her ending is ambiguous, Atwood’s assures her readers that her protagonist is now psychologically prepared, much more than before, for the masculine world of America. Celie is also empowered as a character by her business, her home, her relationships and the return of her children. For McBride to drown her character in waters symbolically correlated with sexual depravity, ending her narrative filled with neglect and violence, only with peace in the death of her 'half-formed' character, appears contradictory and condemning. The implication of the title is interpretable as the protagonist's life being 'half' as a result of her childhood being snatched away from her by a dominant and abusive figure of patriarchy. I believe that McBride's decision not to save her protagonist is a comment on the importance of women having their own psychological space in which to heal, and can be interpreted as a warning, conveying the tragic consequences of female trauma that is not addressed by the societies that fail women such as McBride’s protagonist. The ‘half-formed’ girl is a symbol of the importance of sanctuary for the growth of the self, and a victimised girl whose identity is defined by abuse and her terminally ill brother can only be one of tragedy. 


These contemporary texts demonstrate the resilience that can overcome harmful experiences through narrative, but they beautifully construct protagonists in ways that allow the reader to empathise with their very sensory experiences and thought processes. Through women's writing of female trauma, and their use of language that attempts to replicate the female body, a platform is created which allows for the discussion of sexual politics and prevailing social stigmas which threaten to categorise the feminine as passive. The importance of women writing for women in this way is undeniable in a climate where battles for women’s autonomous rights are still being fought; from the birth of the feminist movement to the present day. What Atwood, Walker and McBride achieve in their portrayals of traumatic experiences that are specific to women is the vocalisation of internalised narratives regarding the ongoing political battleground that is the female body. Trauma theory allows for the conveyance of the physical and psychological damage that can be caused, and it is trauma fiction that allows those consequent symptoms to be artistically expressed in a way that does not look to dramatise, but to portray them so that they can be vicariously experienced by readers who ‘wish to be challenged’. Trauma fiction might be technically complex, but its complexity only stems from that of the subject matter of which it speaks. 

I believe I have proven these texts to be important literary pieces in the portrayal of female traumatic experience in that they provide, through the authors’ use of language and symbolism, empathetic insights in to the trauma caused by societies which look to project upon the female body as if it were a blank space that needs controlling or cultivating. I regard Cixous’ desire for women to ‘write from the body’, and the notion of women writing in a way that separates them from the tradition of patriarchy, to be of the upmost importance in terms of the political feminist issues covered by these novels; marital abuse, coerced abortion, reproductive rights, and the vitality of psychological sanctuary in the face of physical and psychological abuse. Women’s writing of trauma creates a creative and political space where women’s issues can be brought to light in a context that is specific to feminine expression. Walker shows her readers that women can become empowered by their resilience and redeemed from categories such as ‘victim’, and Atwood, whilstadmitting that women do not always know if they wish to be ‘mother’, shows through her writing that it is imperative they are allowed the ‘space’, away from socio-political pressures, in which they can truly decide for themselves and for the sake of their psychological selves. In the case of McBride’s novel, she portrays the detrimental consequences of childhood neglect and abuse, and by sending her protagonist to the water she highlights the importance of sanctuary and support for young contemporary women. 

Trauma fiction, in its ability to ‘narrate the unnarratable’, provides a genre through which women’s writing can evoke a personal empathy which can transgress in to a willingness to understand the political, traumatising injustices partaken against the female body and against women, and to do more for the young women who suffer, be that in fiction or otherwise. 




Atwood, Margaret, Surfacing (Virago Press: London: 1979)

Cixous, Helene, translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, The Laugh of the Medusa (The University of Chicago Press: 1976)

Gilmore, Leigh, The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony (Cornell University Press: 2001)

Howells, Coral Ann, Margaret Atwood (Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire: 2005)

Howells, Coral Ann, The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood (Cambridge University Press 2006)

McBride, Eimear, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Faber & Faber: London: 2014)

Mies, Maria and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism (Zed Books: 1993)

Millett, Kate, Sexual Politics (Virago Press:1977)

Milton, John, Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics: London: 2000)

Walker, Alice, The Color Purple (Phoenix: London: 2004)

Whitehead, Anne Trauma Fiction (Edinburgh University Press: 2004)

Woods, Suzanne, Lanyer: A Renaissance Woman Poet (Oxford University Press: 1999)

Woolf, Virgina, A Room of One’s Own (1929)


Atwood, Margaret, Margaret Atwood on Predicting Everything We’re Doing Wrong (New York, 2016)

McBride, Eimear, Eimear McBride on her Baileys Prize 2014 win for A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (The Telegraph, 2014)

Journal Articles 

Bloom, Sandra L., Trauma Theory Abbreviated, from the Final Action Plan: A Coordinated Community-Based Response to Family Violence, Attorney General of Pennsylvania’s Family Violence Task Force (Community Works: 1999)

Braun, Gretchen, “Untarnished Purity”: Ethics, Agency, and the Victorian Fallen Woman (2015),

Broad, Richard, Water and the Fallen Woman in Victorian Literature and Art (University of London Press: 2016)

Claassens, L Juliana M, Transforming God-Language: The metaphor of God as abusive spouse {Ezeikil 16) in conversation with the portrayal of God in The Color Purple (Stellenbosch University Press: 2014)

Cutter, Martha J, Philomena Speaks: Alice Walker’s revisioning of rape archetypes in The Color Purple (Kent State University: 2000)

Gault, Cinda, “Not Even a Hospital”: Abortion and Identity Tension in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing (University of Guelph: 2007)

Jennings, Hope, Dystopian Matriarchies: Deconstructing the Womb in Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains and the Passion of New Eve (Wright State University: 2008)

Koloze, Jeff J., Abortion in Canadian Literature: Comparisons with American Literature and Canada’s Unique Contributions (Ryerson University: Toronto: 2009)

Rye, Gill, The ethics of aesthetics in trauma fiction: memory, guilt and responsibility in Louise L. Lambrich’s Journal d’Hannah, (2009)

Wisker, Gina, Margaret Atwood: An Introduction to Critical Views of her Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan: 2012)


Cochrane, Kira, “Eimear McBride: ‘There Are Serious Readers Who Want To Be Challenged’”, the Guardian, 2014 [accessed 6 May 2016], ‘What Does The Bible Say About Vanity?’, 2015 [accessed 28 May 2015]

“When Progressive Social Change Becomes Regressive Ideology”, Turning the Tide, 2014> [accessed 3 May 2016] 

Further Reading 

Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Narrative: Trauma, Narrative and History (Johns Hopkins University Press: 1996)

Bollas, Christopher, Hysteria, (Routledge: London: 2000)



Rebecca Claire March


brightONLINE student literary journal

21 Jun 2017