The Conflict between Writing and Motherhood.
Spelling by Margaret Atwood is a poem about the travail of a woman in relation to her sex and profession, which in this case is writing. Margaret Atwood makes use of metaphorical context to elucidate her conviction about the struggles of a female writer. She agrees with Virginia Woolf, that a woman needs a room of her own in order to be able to write, but illuminates the conflict of motherhood that a woman goes through as a barrier to being a focused and successful writer.
The poem begins with the words “my daughter plays on the floor”, the reader immediately gets a picture of a woman typing or penning her thoughts down while watching her daughter play (line 1). Why Atwood would employ such an opening line is fascinating because one would expect a female writer to embrace and manifest the androgyny of a writer, which Woolf talks about in her book “A Room of One’s Own”. Woolf postulates that in one’s mind, there are two powers: one male, one female, and depending on the sexes, one is prominent than the other. However in order to be a genius writer, one needs to interact with the opposite sex in one’s mind, and bring such fusion to birth in one’s literary work. Perhaps, in line with the androgynous thoughts, the poem could have started with watching my child play on the floor which would have been a neutral statement and the sex of the narrator could be debated. However Atwood does the opposite of that, from the very first word, it is obvious that the poem is about motherhood and the narrator, feminine.
The notion of motherhood is emphasized in the opening stanza of the poem since it is taken for granted that it is the mother who is particularly focused on the educational development of a child.
“My daughter plays on the floor,
with plastic letters,
red, blue and hard yellow,
learning how to spell,
how to make spells” (1-6).
It is the mother who is amazed and focuses much attention on the learning development of her child. She is mostly the one who sits with her child, plays Lego and other developmental games with her daughter. She is the one who teaches her child the first few letters, words, shapes and object before handing him or her over to the educational system. With this opening stanza, the picture of a female narrator is solidified in the reader's mind.
As the picture of a mother looking at her daughter play with plastic letters stands out, one is fascinated with the colors chosen as the hue of the plastic letters, because they are basic primary colors and the building block of all others colors. This is a metaphorical way of showcasing the fundamental of learning and transitions effectively into
“learning how to spell,
how to make spells (4-6).
Through this, the provision of the basic amenity of literacy is dealt with: the fact that words are fundamental to writing, reading and speaking. All through the first five lines, the innocence of childhood is expressed and one feels comfortable; however, the fifth line disorients the reader and indicates that all is not right in paradise. It is stated that the daughter is learning how to make spells. The infinitive before “spells” pronounces the word spell as a noun and not a verb (6). With this, the words take up a darker side and relates with witchcraft: a deeper side of construction and compellation with use of words.
This sense of disorientation is conveyed throughout the next stanzas. The second and third stanzas reveal a case of substituting motherhood with writing: locking of oneself in a room so that words can be formed and poems written; and denying one's daughters, believed to take after their mothers, thanks to time spent together. There is a struggle between the professional desire and the maternal instinct: a feeling of suppression. The struggle is enforced in the next stanza with use of an allegorical scene of a woman prevented from giving birth.
This illustration not only shows the travesty a woman goes through, but shows a similarity between a woman torn in war, and a woman torn between motherhood and professional success. Although on the surface level, it might seem that Atwood is exposing on the travesty that women went through during World War II--when soldiers tied the legs of women they had earlier raped thereby preventing them from giving birth, it is a little deeper. Atwood is focusing on the hindering of a female writer from being entirely fulfilled. The fruit of her womb can either be interpreted as either the natural birth of a child, or the birth of her mind’s idea. The woman is either hindered by chores of motherhood, if she were a female writer with child or she is hindered from being an effective mother by the vigorousness of her professional life-- the room behind the curtain which Virginia Woolf emphasizes, in A Room of One’s Own, that a female writer needs to have. Her thighs are tied while in labor so she would not bring to term the fruition of her womb and the seed of her man. The feeling of suffocation and turmoil which the woman who goes through such situation is projected in the reader’s mind, as one can see her being disoriented as the enemy tried to force her to go against the natural path her body is engineered to perform—bearing her child. One immediately understand that the use of such illustration is that she is a woman who is about to give birth to her mind’s progenies, but is hindered, with her hands tied with the chores of motherhood; or the reverse, she is a woman who desire to have a child but is hindered by the vigorousness of her professional life— the room behind the curtain which Woolf emphasizes that a female writer needs to have. One can see her being disoriented as the enemy (man, society and her maternal instinct) forces her against the natural path her body is engineered to perform—bearing her child, or her mind’s creation.
The fourth stanza also depicts man’s power and woman’s vulnerability to such uneasy supremacy. Man is described as the enemy, one who ensures that she does not give birth. This is ironical, since it is from man that the seed for such fruit of motherhood and writing is established. This allegory refers to the male dominating literary world which did not encourage a woman to be an artist, on the contrary she was snubbed, slapped, lectured and exhorted (Woolf 55). This was the reason why many women picked up male pseudonyms in order to publish their works and be treated as able contemporaries. This is also one of the reasons why Woolf criticizes Cambridge establishment very often in her works and makes it clear that a woman could be an incredible writer, only if given the right resources.
The climax of the disoriented feeling is provided in the 5th stanza. This time it is not the internal turmoil of the woman that is showcased, but rather who she is— “she is an ancestress, a burning witch” (21). She is a progenitor of many generations, one whose words are powerful so much that they make others fear the strength behind the words and condemn her-- she is referred to as a witch, but albeit a burning one. With this, “how to make spells” comes to one’s mind, since witches are associated with spells (6). But more importantly the theme of suppression is visible, the witches’ mouth is covered with leather to strangle the spells from bursting out since spoken words are powerful. She is deprived of the very thing that is inherent to her nature- reciting chants and spell. This stanza is reminiscent of Woolf’s analogy that if indeed Shakespeare’s sister had been born, “she would have gone crazy, shot herself or ended up in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at” (Woolf 49).
This particular illustration is fascinating because it deals with spoken word much more that the other stanzas do. The previous stanzas appear to be more focused on the written word and its creation. Perhaps, it is deliberate to show the relation with written and spoken words; words are powerful and significant, but their power is not kindled till they are spoken. That word conjured in the mind, written in the heart and tablets of stone or paper is ineffective until it is uttered. Perhaps this is a problem with female writers: they write but do not speak, and die without leaving their legacy behind.
To say that Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, and many other women were concerned about the struggle and frustration of female writers is an understatement. They delve into issues that affect the productivity of a female writer and prevent her from executing her goals, dreams, ideas and words into realization. It is ironic that Atwood uses an unrestrained method, free verse, in addressing the constraint of a female writers. She is able to utilize the freedom to create structure and can afford to be spontaneous. Conceivably, she is offering a solution to the issues addressed and advocating that a female writer should just give in to her instinct and not be flustered by the rules and the challenges of the profession.
Atwood, Margaret. "Spelling." PoemHunter.com. Poem Hunter. Web. 19 Feb. 2011. http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/spelling/
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. Orlando: Harcourt, 1929. Print.