Moral Disorder and Other Stories  by Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Rima Walker

Atwood fits it all in—the universal themes of relationships with parents, siblings, lovers, teachers, a husband and his ex-wife, and even animals. Although subtitled as a book of short stories, they are put together to form a whole—Nell’s life from childhood to old age.  The first takes place late in her life as she and her husband Tig discuss the disasters headlined in the newspaper over breakfast.  He wants to tell everyone about these horrors; she wants her coffee first and to push away the ever-present perils of the world.

The rest begins with her childhood and maturation and returns to old age at the end.  When her mother bears a baby when Nell is 12, she begins to see an ideal future. She prepares herself by reading a cookery book about keeping a spotless home and kitchen, by knitting a layette which gets stained with raisins that won’t come out, and by taking care of her baby sister who never stops crying.

But the raisin stains hold more reality than Nell’s romantic thoughts of the future.  She struggles with her family’s needs and her troubled baby sister. After an incident in which she is rude to her mother, her mother slaps her. Nell knows then that she must be independent and starts to pull away from her family.

A wonderful passage in the book concerns her English teacher’s analysis of the Robert Browning poem, “My Last Duchess”. But instead of feeling sorry for the Dutchess, Nell sides with the wicked Duke who orders her death—perhaps the pretty, smiling Duchess got what she deserved. But Nell also recognizes the truth of a woman’s lot in life and takes to heart the tragedies of the Duchess, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Hamlet’s Ophelia. After she and her boyfriend Bill argue over the poem, they break up, and Nell gives up her notions of happy families and idyllic married life.

The rest of the book deals with Nell’s recognition that she doesn’t want to be the “cheese” that “stands alone” and her relationship to Tig, her married lover.  She lives with him on a farm where she gets involved with Tig’s children at the urging of Oona, Tig’s wife.  Nell feels like a servant and continues to feel that way after marrying Tig when Oona, still in the picture, makes demands on her.

But she is also involved with her gardens and the animals that Tig collects.  A very interesting episode concerns a horse named Gladys that Nell has inherited from a friend and grows to love.  But the disastrous end of Gladys along with the cow butchered for food, the ducklings victimized by owls, and the killing of deformed baby chicks mirror her disasters and those in the lives of the people around her.  In time she must deal with her father’s illnesses and stroke and her mother’s lapse into blindness and decrepitude.  She tries to help her mother through with stories from her childhood, but she recognizes that we all do come to an end and the end is all sadness.

Atwood’s storyline is not as cruel as those written before, but her message is the same on a different scale: we don’t normally lead ordered lives, we don’t play out our hopes and dreams but are subject to whatever life throws at us; yet, despite disillusionment and sadness, we endure. ~