Atwood’s Future for a Profit-Driven World
The dystopian novel’s success is generally considered to be dependant upon its ability to effectively criticize our present world through the extension of its consequences represented within a world dramatically devoid of morals in the future. According to this standard, Margaret Atwood’s newest novel, Oryx and Crake, is a dystopian masterpiece. Atwood illustrates the ultimate apocalyptic disaster when the novel’s antagonist, Crake, uses both his scientific genius combined with his apparent moral depravity to attempt extinguishing, and then recreating, the entire human race. In contrast, the narrative voice of Jimmy/Snowman, the story’s protagonist, gradually reveals a world of isolation for those who possess either artistic appreciation or compassion. The picture painted of the future is a distinctly bleak one, illustrated through such extreme characteristics as future society's’ wide acceptances of class divisions through gated communities, repeated dismissals of humanitarian concerns with respect to genetic engineering, and blatant disregard for questions of morality even while considering extreme issues like child pornography and sexual slavery.
Critics of the novel Oryx and Crake commonly agree that recognition of the presence of inhumane elements is essential to an understanding of the novel’s purpose. What remains to be established, however, is what, if any, common factor links the morally reprehensible characteristics of Atwood’s future society. If we know what the essential vice is that Atwood’s future society suffers from, we not only know what she is critiquing in today’s society, but we know what she recommends avoiding to provide an escape from such a nightmare in the future. Attempting to answer this question, critic Stephen Dunning comes close. He says, “Atwood recognizes that a world devoid of qualitative distinctions will be driven by base appetites and fears, stimulated by the latest technological innovations and marketed for maximum profit” (1). But what consistent characteristic motivates these “base appetites”? The answer to discovering what lies at the heart of Atwood’s critique is as simple as the commonly-quoted biblical advice that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Ti 6:10). Upon close examination of the elements of moral reprehensibility in Atwood’s novel, readers can identify an underlying common thread consisting of an obsession with material gain above all other aspirations of future society.
One of the most striking characteristics providing significant evidence for the presence of a deeply materialistic society emerges in Atwood’s casual inclusion of dramatic class stratification in the novel. According to critic Danette DiMarco, “a division of communities and labor is at the crux of Atwood’s construction of [Jimmy/Snowman’s] early development” (177). Through the portrayal of Jimmy/Snowman’s memories of the world around him during childhood, readers can immediately identify a distinct difference between two prominent class structures within the novel. The protagonist is born into the “Compounds,” gated communities wherein the successful and wealthy live to ensure a refuge from the “Pleeblands,” which are inhabited by the rest of the world, including “the addicts, the muggers, the paupers, the crazies” (27). As the underlying cause for the separation of economic classes in the novel, Dunning suggests an equally distinct separation of intellectual classes evident, saying, “Those gifted ‘numbers’ people who can serve their commercialized technological society profitably find refuge behind highly fortified corporation compounds” (3). Readers soon find that the physical walls of his privileged community provide the young Jimmy/Snowman with little protection from the supposed intellectual superiority of most of the rest of the citizens living in the Compounds.
As soon as the revelation becomes clear of Jimmy/Snowman’s isolated identity as a lover of words in a society whose obsession with profit places value on science and numbers alone, readers can an begin to identify a common element of societal obsession with profit in the novel. Through Atwood’s revelations of Jimmy/Snowman’s first childhood memories of the Compounds, she makes it clear that any child who cannot intellectually excel in the scientific realm in the future will shame even his own parents. The protagonist’s parents both had worked as scientists at “OrganicInc Farms,” a company whose research is done to produce genetically manipulated animals for maximized profits. Not surprisingly, arguments between his parents about the protagonist’s intellectual inferiority as a “words person” begin as early as Chapter Four. Jimmy hears the secret disputes between his parents and is well aware, even as a child, that the scientific community in which he lives views him as “not the brightest star in the universe, not a numbers person” (58).
While giving readers perspectives into Jimmy/Snowman’s world during childhood, Atwood also reveals a subtle connection between the narrator’s identification as a “words person” and his relatively isolated sense of morality compared to the blatantly immoral and inhumane society in which he lives. According to DiMarco, “his [Jimmy/Snowman’s] potential to see himself as connected with nature is evident from about the age of five and a half” (188). Readers are given evidence of this statement early in the novel when the protagonist flashes back to a memory of watching the mass incineration of diseased animals from OrganicInc Farms (18). DiMarco comments that Jimmy/Snowman’s “own materiality as equal to and not superior to them [the animals] lingers and reveals itself through the fear of being burned as well” (188). Thus, the childhood memories reveal an important instance of Jimmy/Snowman’s “repeated personal attentiveness to and concern for human and non-human others” (DiMarco 188). Considered in addition to other instances where Jimmy/Snowman is marginalized for his sensitive and compassionate traits (such as his disgust for eating “pigoon” products or his most cherished birthday present, a pet “rakunk”) readers of the novel may identify an attempt on Atwood’s part to link “words people” with much more humane characteristics than their more scientifically capable peers.
Only one other sensitive main character in the story besides Jimmy/Snowman exists as a means for Atwood both to further demonstrate future societies’ intolerance for questions of integrity and to provide insight into Jimmy/Snowman’s moral development. While she had been a scientist at OrganicInc Farms during the early years of her marriage, Jimmy/Snowman’s mother repeatedly questions the ethics of the society in which she lives, eventually making her one of the novel’s most marginalized characters (DiMarco 189). Jimmy/Snowman watches as his parents’ marriage deteriorates because of his mother’s increasing unhappiness within the walls of the Compounds. She questions Jimmy/Snowman’s father’s celebration of “NooSkins,” an expensive product he had helped create that could be used to regenerate the skin of consumers who want to look younger. After hearing her husband’s rationalizations and defenses of the new product, saying that it “can give people hope, it isn’t ripping off!” she retorts,
At NooSkins prices it is. You hype your wares and take all their money
and then they run out of cash, and it’s no more treatments for
them. They can rot as far as you and your pals are concerned. Don’t
you remember the way we used to talk, everything we wanted to do? Making
life better for people—not just people with money. You used to
be so . . . you had ideals, then (56-57).
Eventually, Jimmy/Snowman’s mother abandons her family, escaping to where she hopes to find ethical freedom: the Pleeblands. Readers immediately become aware of the danger his mother faces from her decision as Jimmy/Snowman is routinely questioned throughout the course of the novel by Compound security (the “CorpSeCorps”) as to her whereabouts. Angry as he is with his mother for leaving, he continues to try to attempt protecting and defending her to those who question him. However, while he constantly flashes back to memories of her, Jimmy/Snowman’s loss of his mother seems to be compensated for with the emergence of a new friend from school: Crake. Further revealing the immorality of the profit-driven society, readers are horrified by the afternoon illustrations of these teenage boys who largely spend their time smoking marijuana, watching child pornography, and playing bloody, apocalyptic video games. Soon later, when Jimmy/Snowman is shown on television, by the CorpSeCorps, his mother’s bloody execution, his ability to forget her fades. The dying words she mouths to Jimmy/Snowman during her murder, “Don’t let me down,” remain ingrained into his thinking for the duration of the novel, further identifying his sensitivity to her example as well as the integrity within him that may seemed to have dwindled during his teenage years with Crake (259).
Jimmy/Snowman’s identity as a “words person” continues to follow and plague him in adulthood. Crake, as the novel’s quintessential “numbers person,” receives extreme privilege for his scientific genius, finally leading to his attendance at the wealthiest and most prestigious college available: Watson-Crick Institute. In contrast, Jimmy/Snowman’s supposedly inferior linguistic intelligence leads him to college at the infamous, dilapidated Martha Graham Academy. Jimmy/Snowman himself sees his education at Martha Graham as a joke, knowing that his school’s meager existence remained for the sole purpose of what little money it could still manage to make. Jimmy/Snowman reflects,
As the initial funders had died off and the enthusiasm of the dedicated artsy money had waned and endowment had been sought in more down-to-earth quarters, the curricular emphasis had switched to other arenas. Contemporary arenas, they were called. Webgame Dynamics, for instance; money could still be made from that. Or Image Presentation, listed in the calendar as a sub-branch of Pictorial and Plastic Arts. With a degree in PicArts, as the students called it, you could go into advertising, no sweat. (188)
It is clear from this excerpt that the limited value Atwood’s futuristic society (including even the “words people” of Martha Graham) places on the arts and humanities is no different that the value it places on the nature of people’s minds: if it does not make money, it is not important.
The once sensitive character of Jimmy/Snowman becomes more fully deconstructed by the society in which he lives, but still maintains a mildly subversive nature. He paves his way through college by subtly resisting “the system [that] had filed him among the rejects,” a society who considered his studies of literature an “archaic waste of time” (195). In his typically sarcastic, cynical, yet defiant tone, Jimmy/Snowman decides to identify himself “as its [art’s, literature’s] champion, its defender and preserver” (195). Through actively searching for books considered extinct from the English language and deliberately adding their vocabularies into his writing, Jimmy/Snowman is able to “make up books that didn’t exist . . . and nobody could spot the imposture” (196).
After graduating from Martha Graham, Jimmy/Snowman seems to temporarily sell out to the society in which he lives, getting a job at “AnooYoo,” a company described as “a collection of cesspool denizens who existed for no other reason that to prey on the phobias and void the bank accounts of the anxious and the gullible” (247). While he effectively performs his commercial advertising duties at AnooYoo, “to describe and extol, to present the vision of what—oh so easily—could come to be,” he soon becomes exceedingly depressed (248). It is not until he is invited by Crake to do similar advertising work at his unit of the “RejoovenEsense Compound,” called “Paradice,” that Jimmy/Snowman seems to find refuge from his dulled, but still active conscience. His temporary happiness comes, however, only in the form of a woman.
Oryx, whose past provides more ample evidence of a financially obsessed society in the novel, was sold by her desperately poor family into a life of oppression and sexual slavery. When Jimmy/Snowman is first introduced to Oryx as Crake’s lover and the scientist's chosen teacher for the genetically engineered humans he created (the “Crakers”), Jimmy/Snowman immediately recognizes her as the adult version of a child he and Crake had been especially drawn to when watching child pornography as teenagers. Although he is immediately smitten by Oryx, fear of betraying Crake’s friendship motivates Jimmy/Snowman to deny his attraction, until Oryx initiates a relationship with him. In many ways, his attitudes toward Oryx’s oppressed past seemed to make Jimmy/Snowman seem childish and idealistic in comparison to Crake, who responds to his concerns about Oryx’s former life by saying, “Jimmy, grow up.”
Even when Jimmy/Snowman made clear to her his disillusionment with the submissive attitudes she maintained toward the many oppressive sexual relationships she had endured, Oryx too would dismiss his ideas as unrealistic, believing that “love was undependable, it came and then went, so it was good to have a money value, because then at least those who wanted to make a profit from you would make sure you were fed enough and not damaged too much” (126). Jimmy/Snowman’s indignation for the cruelties of Oryx’s past, contrasted with her terrifyingly casual acceptance of the immoral society of which she was a victim, provide further evidence for his sensitive, albeit somewhat naïve, nature.
Jimmy/Snowman is not surprisingly characterized with further disillusionment and cynicism after Crake successfully kills himself, Oryx, and (seemingly) the rest of the world with a biological attack in the form of a mass-marketed pill, “BlyssPluss.” However, the protagonist remains deliberately rebellious to Crake’s plans for the new human race. Despite his knowledge of Crake’s disbelief in God and nature, he introduces godlike mythology to the “Children of Crake,” gradually revealing and revising stories about Crake as their creator and Oryx as the creator of animals and nature throughout the novel (9). Ironically, Jimmy/Snowman finds that he is even elevated to a godlike status by the Crakers when he finds them chanting and “sitting in a semi-circle around a grotesque-looking figure, a scarecrowlike effigy” (360). Due to the surprisingly powerful effects of Jimmy/Snowman’s words, readers find that the Crakers have made an idol to worship Jimmy/Snowman, even “after Crake’s precautions, his insistence on keeping these people pure, free of all contamination of that kind” (360). Through this example, Atwood makes clear that “the religious perception of correspondence between the seen and the unseen proves hard to excise [in humanity],” invalidating the ultimate superiority of the quantitative and scientific within society before the Crakers’ existence (Dunning 6).
Atwood presents a clear predicament for both readers and Jimmy/Snowman
at the novel’s conclusion, when he finds three more humans are
still living. Either he must risk his own life and, possibly, the lives
of the Crakers by asking for help from the humans, or he must kill them
to insure protection for himself and the Craker, thereby becoming partially
responsible for ending humanity. However, one must consider all of the
evidence of Jimmy/Snowman’s personal characterization as well as
the author’s description of the shockingly immoral society in which
he lived to identify Atwood’s purpose with this concluding dilemma.
While it could be argued that the characterization of Jimmy/Snowman’s
nature as a “words person” was shown throughout the course
of the novel to lead readers to a conclusion that art (as opposed to
science) is the essential element to save the human race, Atwood purposely
gives no solid evidence for this convenient speculation. The root of
all evil in the story is societal obsession with personal gain. Thus,
when DiMarco suggests that Atwood’s conclusion is an encouragement
for readers to “examine critically personal and collective choices
. . . to interrogate the large and spacious footprints we as humans have
left behind,” she lends helpful insight into Atwood’s true
purpose (194). Atwood’s advice is simple, but not easy; the first
and most significant way we can provide the best future for our world
is to individually and collectively sacrifice the profitable for the
Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.
DiMarco, Danette. “Paradice Lost, Paradice Regained: homo faber and the Makings of a New Beginning in Oryx and Crake.” Papers on Language and Literature.
Dunning, Stephen. “Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake: The Terror of the Therapeutic.” Canadian Literature 186 (2005) 1-10.
Holy Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.
Copyright 2006 Dr. Michael O'Conner
All rights reserved.