Book review: The Circle Game by Margaret Atwood

By contributor Jennifer Garceau

The fruits of wandering through secondhand bookstores paid off recently when I found a wonderfully vintage 1976 edition of Margaret Atwood’s The Circle Game.

When I read this seven part poem I was moved in a way I wasn’t the first time I came across it in my youth. Relating it to my life has allowed me to read The Circle Game and see a juxtaposition of individualism vs. altruism, childhood vs. adulthood and the cycle of the indoctrination of gender scripts that I never could have understood then.

Immediately within Part I of the poem there is a theme of cyclical of hidden messages within our social script. She begins with children outside singing and dancing in a circle, a rendition of Ring Around the Rosy. The folklore rhymes and songs we teach our children are so often about awful moments in history (Ring Around the Rosy is contended by many to be about the plague) set to song in order not to frighten but also to distract from the deeper meaning. We think of them as cautionary tales. Atwood shows us the use of cautionary tales to conform children into grouped thinking when she writes “that the whole point / for them / of going round and round / is (faster / slower) / going round and round.”

In Part II, we progress from the childhood lessons in social script into young adulthood of individualism. Yet as much as we are learning about the importance of individualism, we look to others to tell us who we are, “groping through a mirror / whose glass has melted / to the consistency / of gelatin.” The adult social script of gender differences has taken hold, “You refuse to be / (and I) / an exact reflection, yet / will not walk from the glass, / be separate.” We enforce these gender roles by policing each other, the fear of being different and of someone knowing it, “there is always … someone in the next room.”

By the time Atwood takes us to the next section of the poem the narrative moves into warning—trying to educate and alert the children of their participation in the cycle she writes, “When we read the legends / in the evening / of monstrous battles, and secret / betrayals,” noting that instead of hearing the call to break away, the children have become complacent to the threat of impending danger, “how / they could remain completely without fear / or even interest.” After a childhood of cautionary tales where danger comes but goodness prevails the children haven’t the ability to understand fear, they have locked themselves into “trenches / … fortified with pointed sticks / driven into the sides.”

Paired next to the fortification of the children’s trenches, Atwood circles us ‘round again to the tale of a man and woman, individualized by society but pretending to live together as a union. In Part II, Atwood illuminates this aspect of an intimate relationship when she writes, “You look past me, listening,” showing the challenge of truly hearing outside ideas when they first filter through your own sense of knowing and being. Perpetuating the idea of individualism and patriarchal gender differences keeps the general population distracted from the dangers we brush off in the cautionary tales, “I notice how / all your word- / plays, calculated ploys / of the body, the witticisms / of touch, are now / attempts to keep me/ at a certain distance … avoid admitting I am here.” Gender differences are a social construct reinforced in children when they take part in institutions like the education system.

In Part V, she writes, “The children like the block / of grey stone that was once a fort / but now is a museum,” reminding the reader that education used to be a fortress of protection against industrialization and child labour but has turned into a preservation of tradition for tradition’s sake. School is where we learn how to think like others.

The perils of individualism are emphasized when she writes “And you play the safe game / the orphan game,” telling the reader that only having to think of your own needs is a double-edged sword. A person who only has to think of themselves doesn’t need to break away from the comfort of the cycle they’ve always known, but they also run the risk of not having the connection to others who can help you with your own needs, “the ragged winter game / that says, I am alone.”

The cycle of Ring Around the Rosy, which the children started the poem off playing, has returned. Cycles are meant to repeat, and we haven’t learned the lessons of the poem thus far. Even though the danger of individualism has been spotted we hang on to the beliefs which place us in peril ,“(a wasp comes, / drawn by the piece of sandwich … one of the children flinches / but won’t let go).” Perhaps where Atwood is most direct at addressing the reader is when she writes, “You make them / turn and turn, according to / the closed rules of your games, / but there is no joy in it.” Even though our values and indoctrinations are creating a complacent culture of individualized, blind consumers, we participate in the cycle which keeps it alive, “our lips moving / almost in time to their singing.” Fear controls us, and Atwood wants “the circle / broken” because a circle is a trap, “a cage of bones.”

There are many more themes that could be argued as being a significant part of this poem: the reality of complacency allowing us to be in nature but not a part of it, income inequality, and a much more in-depth look at the social construct of gender.


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