June 27, 2009

Woman On the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

SPOILERS WARNING. This post contains spoilers about the book. It is intended for people who have already read the book. If you have not yet read Woman On the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy you probably don't want to read this post.

I found Woman On the Edge of Time to be difficult and unpleasant. I almost stopped reading the book more than once. I don't remember any book I have read to the end, for which I disliked the main character as much as I disliked Connie, the woman in this book. The story is told from Connie's perspective. Most of the first hundred pages consist of Connie's whining and complaining. I am glad I stuck with it though. The book contains many thought-provoking ideas regarding population control, technology, mental illness, the structure of society, death, mental hospitals, ecology, the family, child-rearing, the role of men and women, the future of capitalism, and more. Much could be written regarding the concepts presented, however, my intention here is to describe two possible interpretations of the overall story.
Here's a synopsis of the story on the surface, the story advertised on the book's cover. Connie is unjustly committed to a mental hospital against her will and mistreated there. She visits the future in her mind and witnesses a utopia where people never have to do anything they don't want to do, everyone works together for the good of the community, everyone is open and honest with one another, no one is selfish or greedy, and everything anyone needs is provided for free. She also witnesses an horrific alternative future that she believes is more likely to occur if her doctors' research is allowed to continue. So she murders four of her doctors, sacrificing herself in an attempt to save the utopian future.

In my alternate interpretation, Connie is mentally ill, can't control her violent tendencies, talks with imagined visitors from the future, hallucinates her own visits to the future, and murders four of her doctors. In this interpretation the author uses the tragic tale of an insane woman as a vehicle for espousing her beliefs about society, technology, ecology, etc.

Piercy provides clues to the alternate interpretation and is careful not to invalidate it. The author leaves both interpretations open as possibilities. If Piercy wanted to seal the obvious, superficial interpretation of the story, she would have written an epilogue showing the utopian future flourishing with no war against the evil technological forces. That would have proven the utopian future had an existence outside of Connie's mind and that Connie's murdering the doctors had saved the future. However, if the good future only existed in Connie's head, then no such epilogue would be possible. There's another easy way the obvious interpretation could have been made concrete. Someone else in the present could have seen Luciente or Dawn during their visits to the present. No one did, which supports the interpretation that the visitors only existed in Connie's head.

I loved the ending, which encouraged the story's ambiguity. There were two reasons the ending caused me to reinterpret the story. First, the inclusion of Connie's hospital records at the end forces the reader to view Connie objectively. For the first time the reader sees Connie's case from a perspective other than Connie's, which inspires the reader to review the story from this new, objective perspective. Second, the lack of an epilogue showing the results of Connie's actions in the future, seems significant. Such an epilogue would have been so easy and natural, if Connie's visions had been real. The omission of such an epilogue implies that the author wanted the story to remain ambiguous.

When I mentally reviewed the story, I realized several things I had not realized as I read. If Connie was really insane, then we had an unreliable storyteller. During the first hundred pages I disliked Connie because she was so messed up. I thought she was intensely negative, unstable, extremely self-centered, and expressed abnormal views of right and wrong. I also thought she revealed unhealthy views of the roles of men and women. I noticed all these things as I read, but I never attributed them to Connie's insanity. In retrospect, the aspects of Connie's personality I disliked may have simply been symptoms of her illness.

I had a mentally-ill friend that Connie reminded me of. Like Connie, he enjoyed his hallucinations and delusions. He imagined a world in which he had cured AIDS and in which he had invented a three-dimensional crystalline computer memory so that laptops could contain terrabytes of RAM. The doctors prescribed medications that killed his imaginary world, so, like Connie, he refused to take his medications whenever he could. Also like Connie, his actions slowly and surely alienated his family and friends, until they were no longer willing to go out of their way to help him get out of jails or mental wards. They realized he was probably where he needed to be.

I remember another example supporting the unreliable-storyteller interpretation. At one point a hospital nurse got angry and flippantly ordered an extra sedative injection for everyone on the ward. I don't think that would happen. Hospitals have to keep records, controlled substances are monitored and audited, patients' records show billable medications and therapies (even if the state pays for them), doctors must approve medications... Including such an unbelievable scenario implies that Connie's accounts of events in the hospital may not be accurate. We are forced to reevaluate Connie's story through her insanity rather than as a reliable record of events.

Here's another consideration that bothered me during the story. Insanity is defined and measured by means of numerous psychological tests. Test results are evaluated as being within the normal range or outside the normal range. Prisons are filled with drug abusers, people with multiple assaults on their records, child abusers, and people who committed all the crimes that Connie committed. Doing the things Connie did results in prison time, not a lifetime in a mental hospital. Simply having a brother who says his sister is crazy is not enough to result in prolonged, involuntary hospital commitment. I am a layman, but I believe patients are thoroughly tested and then treated based on their test results. Connie was given a battery of psychological tests, and then kept in the hospital. The obvious conclusion is that her test results indicated she was mentally ill and needed treatment. Otherwise she would have been released, or transferred to a jail to stand trial for assault.

I think the interpretation that Connie is mentally ill and hallucinates the future has enough support to make it a valid interpretation. I also think that Piercy is careful to leave both interpretations open as possibilities. To me, this ambiguity improves the book and gives it more depth.

Copyright © 2009 by Jon Maloney

1 comment:

  1. from the same era from which piercy was writing from: http://psychrights.org/articles/rosenham.htm

    love to hear yr thoughts- i'm beet(at squiggle)riseup(period)net.