by Sarika Rao
Margaret Atwood’s short story “Bluebeard’s Egg” represents a modern take on a classic folkloric story originating in tales from France, Germany and England. In Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard,” a young bride’s betrayal of her husband’s trust leads to his attempt on her life. Atwood’s story portrays a more complicated and subtle picture of these themes, making them seem relatively normal instead of fantastical. “Bluebeard’s Egg” explores themes present in earlier tales, like infidelity, abuse of trust, and concealment, by placing the fairy tale into an everyday, middle-class environment. Atwood uses this conscious shift in perspective to comment on the role of perspective in interpretation more broadly.
Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg” is about a middle-aged couple Sally and Ed. Sally is the bored housewife who also works at a trust company, while her husband is a “heart man” (Atwood 160). He never pays enough attention to Sally, and much of the text is devoted to her worries about everyday life. Ed, on the other hand, floats in and out of the story while playing the mysterious husband Sally cannot decipher, an allusion to Bluebeard. Sally also complains that although Ed may be a heart man, he does not understand real hearts, the ones “symbolized by red satin surrounded by lace and topped by pink bows” (Atwood 160). She wants the romance and fantasy, likening herself to the “princess” (Atwood 157) of fairy tales. Ed, however, is not the heroic prince, but rather the unknown force lurking in the background, never quite articulating his point of view. This drives the plot of the entire story, Sally complaining, from the narrator’s perspective, and thinking about Ed and their relationship. At the end of the story, Sally has the unfortunate luck of walking in on Ed and her best friend Marylynn and witnesses him touching her inappropriately. The last paragraphs reveal Sally’s dilemma that perhaps Ed has deceived her all along. Her point of view was incorrect because she perceived the things she wanted without question. She took everything at face value, something that parallels the structure of many stories. Atwood toys with idea by seemingly giving us all the information but at the end throws a curve-ball and reveals that we, along with Sally, did not know anything at all. The shifts in narrative perspective should be considered when reading “Bluebeard’s Egg” because Atwood encourages us to question our assumptions of how stories create real meaning. Perspective affects interpretation, and thereby meaning, which raises implications of how stories, in general, affect our lives.
Perspective plays an important role in this story. Sally explains, via the narrator, that she is a woman searching for answers. She becomes, through the narrator’s own perspective, the protagonist, and the reader is privy only to her side of the action. Because of this one-sided voice, the narrator has control over what information the reader gets. Depending on perspective, interpretation of Atwood’s story can change. The narrator speaks for Sally, but because there is little actual dialogue between the characters, this perspective may be too biased. At the same time it gives the story suspense. Sally assumes she knows everything relevant to her situation, but she eventually questions her own beliefs after the incident between Ed and Marylynn. The narrator does not paint an accurate picture because of the biased perspective.
Atwood makes us aware that her story is not entirely accurate and calls attention to the story’s shifting narrative perspective in different ways. She deliberately writes that Sally continually worries about her marriage and believes that perhaps she does not know everything about Ed. The narrator explains “Ed is a real person, with a lot more to him than these simplistic renditions allow for; which sometimes worries her” (Atwood 158). Sally alludes to the fact that there is another perspective in the story that she, and we, do not know; Ed’s own point of view. He talks in succinct sentences when conversing with the other characters, but what he reveals leaves Sally wanting much more. She wants to explore “Ed’s inner world, which she can’t get at” (Atwood 169) and it completely frustrates her. We become aware at the beginning that Ed will remain a mystery which Sally cannot solve because he seems “a shadow” (Atwood 176) to her and us.
Another example of this shift occurs when Marylynn talks to Sally about Ed: “‘Ed is cute as a button,” Marylynn said. ‘In fact, he’s just like a button: he’s so bright and shiny. If he were mine, I’d get him bronzed and keep him on the mantelpiece’” (Atwood 160). This quote comes directly from the character, a rare occurrence in Atwood’s story. It also sums up Sally’s worst fears about how women respond to her husband. She teases him about being preyed upon by invisible women “who follow him around everywhere” (Atwood 166), but she fears this scenario all the same. Atwood cleverly uses Marylynn, a secondary character, to point out this fear; the same character who may be having an affair with Ed. By shifting perspective the reader becomes aware of how Marylynn feels and thinks compared to Sally. Although both women objectify Ed, Marylynn’s words are more threatening than playful. Her voice gives us a different point of view and essentially more information to ponder and examine.
One thing to consider is whether the narrator is a disembodied voice, or possibly something more. At the end of the story, Sally lies awake in bed, after the dinner party where she saw Ed intimately touching Marylynn. She has a “dream vision” (Tatar 144) and sees her black and white heart morph into a pulsing, golden pink egg. Then she wonders if the egg will eventually hatch “what will come out of it?” (Atwood 178). She does not know what will happen next because the story ends with that lingering question burning in her mind. Perhaps the entire story parallels her class assignment: both are written from the egg’s perspective. This consideration also changes how the reader might interpret the story’s meaning. Sally has a potential future, just as the egg will eventually hatch. Her story ends because Atwood wrote it that way; she controls the lives of her characters and opens the story’s conclusion to speculation. In general, stories allow us to speculate what happens after the characters leave our imagination and return to their literary existence.
Stories also represent the culture they come from, culture that provides a narrative authority that explains how these stories go. These cultures and societies use stories to explain how things exist; over time patterns and themes emerge. Observations remain permanently fixed to the socio-cultural awareness and people learn to recognize the motifs and rules from the stories, handing down explanations to the next generation. But no one questions why things occur the way they do because there is no information to suggest otherwise. We cannot make inferences about these stories because doing so defeats their purpose.
Fairy tales and folklore play a major part in this cultural authority as they disseminate values and lessons. Most people grow up with this particular literary genre. As part of this genre, the Bluebeard canon focuses mainly on the theme of female curiosity and its negative repercussions, but the stories also focus on female ingenuity and courage (Tatar 142). Female protagonists devise ways to either save themselves or be saved by others. But Sally does not fit into this category because Atwood does not conclude her story like the other Bluebeard tales. Instead, “Bluebeard’s Egg” provides commentary on the ideas and themes present in popular fairy tales and folklore.
By writing her version of the Bluebeard story with an upper-middle class couple, Atwood frames betrayal with comfort and normalcy. Nothing seems out of place with Sally and Ed, they have their problems just like every one else. The reader can actually relate to these characters on a different level than those from classic fairy tales. Atwood does not rely on such conventions like magic, old hags, fairies, and princes, to make her point. Instead, her story appears non-threatening compared to the original story of murdered wives in a secret room. Fairy tales, and their fantasy, provide comfort with the message that good always conquers evil and only good people live happily ever after. “Bluebeard’s Egg” takes this notion and turns it upside down, which is actually more threatening because it lacks finality. Sally and Ed’s story will continue, like everyday couples’ stories, but we will never know what happens; narrative perspective, with all of its biases, “is thus unlimited” (Meindl 219). In essence, Atwood transforms the nature of the story’s threat by controlling its perspective.
Atwood uses this unlimited perspective in “Bluebeard’s Egg” to manipulate what the reader actually knows. Sally seems knowledgeable about her life with Ed, but this knowledge is nothing more than an illusion. Ed apparently hides behind his façade of the dumb husband “which he can go about his business, humming to himself” (Atwood 158). She, and the reader, stays on the outside—because Atwood wants it that way. The idea of remaining outside the story’s truth raises a “what if?” question, not only here but for all other stories. Perhaps everything and everyone resides outside the story’s ultimate truth. Or maybe, all truth in stories is subjective. In the end, stories present information but readers create the meaning.
Although authors control their own stories, through manipulation of characters, events, and dialogue, readers have a strong say in what stories mean to them. In reality, interpretation is virtually unlimited because right and wrong do not apply; the audience gains a voice and therefore some control. No one can say whether Ed and Marylynn are in fact conducting an affair; that passage is ambiguous. And it will continually raise questions about how perspective affects interpretation. People can read stories over and over and still find new meaning in the text every time. Stories are important parts of our lives because they transcend time and give people the opportunity to create meaning through interpretation. Perspective, however, affects interpretation. Therefore, by shifting perspective in “Bluebeard’s Egg,” Atwood creates multiple meanings, which are often in conflict with one another. While fairy tales remain popular because their simple messages appeal to many different people, Atwood questions the truth of such simplicity by giving her story multiple meanings. Yet, the multiple pieces of a story may not coherently fit together, creating an ambiguity and openness that puts power into the hands of the readers.
Atwood’s story “Bluebeard’s Egg” presents readers an interesting story that deserves close attention. Paying attention to her use of perspective makes us question how it can affect our interpretation of the text. And if our interpretation changes with perspective, it may affect the meaning of the story—or at least the interpretation of meaning. Even our assumptions regarding perspective affect interpretation and meaning. Stories are powerful tools, and we can never forget their importance in our lives because they also reflect what we believe, think, feel, and how we act. In short, we imbue stories with our own experience, limitations, perspectives, interpretations, and meaning. And perhaps this is what Atwood wanted to convey all along.
Atwood, Margaret. “Bluebeard’s Egg.” The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: WW Norton & Company, 1999. 156-178.
Meindl, Deiter. “Gender and Narrative Perspective in Margaret Atwood’s Stories.” Margaret Atwood: Writing and Subjectivity. Ed. Colin Nicholson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1994. 219-229.
Tatar, Maria. “Introduction: Bluebeard.” The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: WW Norton & Company, 1999. 138-144.