In Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last*, Stan and Charmaine live in the Northeast in the years after a terrible economic collapse that has affected that part of the country more than any other. They are eking out a meager living, sleeping in their car, avoiding roaming gangs, and looking desperately for work.
Increasingly despondent about their chances of raising their standard of living (they cannot afford enough gas to get them to a region with better economic prospects), Charmaine and Stan apply to and are accepted by the Positron project. Positron is a prison located in its sister town, Consilience. Every month, half the citizens of Consilience go about ordinary lives—ordering furnishing for their houses, going to work, enjoying the movies and music of the 1950s; the next month, they become inmates in Positron prison, where they attend to jobs like knitting and feeding the town’s chicken supply. There is zero unemployment in Consilience, almost no crime, and no hunger.
But of course things are not what they seem, and soon Stan and Charmaine are sucked into a vortex of secrets and plots and come much too close to learning the truth behind the Positron system (which seems like a thinly-veiled critique of the company town).
In many ways, The Heart Goes Last is your standard dystopian thriller:
- Evil institution interested in exploiting the populace
- Characters forced by circumstance to join evil institution
- Social breakdown and collapse of economic systems
- Power of human relationships fundamental to resolution of tale
- High tension, cascading plot revelations, and an unsettling denouement
But The Heart Goes Last also offers a heaping portion of satire; this is the genre taken to its limit, complete with sexbots, brain-wiping, sinister knitting, and more Elvises than have ever appeared in a novel (to my knowledge). And it’s Margaret Atwood, so throw in plenty of sex and gender politics as well.
Until I realized it was satire, I found the novel hard to like; neither Stan nor Charmaine, nor any of the supporting characters, are particularly likable; there’s no Offred to cheer for (well, maybe one minor character). I don’t require likable characters to enjoy a book, but it’s harder to stick with a novel when you don’t much care whether such-and-such lives or dies.
And it’s not just satire; it’s a riff on Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poem is mentioned explicitly once, and the novel’s last lines are lifted from the end of Milton’s epic in an amusing fashion.
Milton’s purpose in Paradise Lost is to “justify the ways of God to man.” A tall order, but Milton’s like that. Essentially, his epic poem is an attempt to explain why God would create humans only to watch us sin and suffer; put another way, the poem tries to solve the problem of evil. But it’s more than that; it’s about poetry itself, marriage, psychology, history, freedom, education, the environment (Milton might call it stewardship),and choice. (And more.)
The Heart Goes Last is rather like Paradise Lost set in the dystopian future, without an omnipotent God running the show.
On one level, paradise is already lost, thanks to the economic collapse that’s sent Stan and Charmaine into the arms of Positron.
Consilience, the supposed paradise of full employment, no hunger, and perfect happy homes (and, Stan notices eventually, no gay citizens) is of course a prison too, a prison of constant surveillance; Stan and Charmaine have traded their freedom for security, and that’s a bad choice. In Milton’s poem, Eve and Adam have security–all their needs are provided for, though, like Stan and Charmaine, they are expected to work. Crucially, Eve trades that security for freedom–choosing to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And for Milton, that’s the bad choice, the wrong one that leads to humanity’s fallen history.
But in each case, it’s the woman’s choice, and her husband, for good or ill, goes along with it; the ebb and flow of partners’ satisfaction and interests in the marriage is a key theme in The Heart Goes Last, just as marriage-making is a thread that runs through Paradise Lost.
Then there’s temptation. One of Charmaine’s most interesting characteristics is her susceptibility to suggestion, a trait she shares with Eve, though Charmaine might be just a touch more self-aware. Milton’s God contends that he created humanity “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,” and that’s one way of describing Stan and Charmaine, both in their choice to sign the Consilience contract, and in their personal sexual choices.
There are several other parallels (I think I see Ms. Atwood grappling with Milton’s views on women, for instance), but what struck me as I thought about the two texts is how Ms. Atwood’s book brought something about Paradise Lost into focus for me: Milton’s version of Eden is a surveillance state. Eve and Adam are watched constantly–by the reader and the speaker, in some sense, but also by Satan, the angels, and God (Father and Son). How free are you if every choice you make is monitored, and occasionally someone is sent by to educate you about your choices?
Putting these books in conversation is a fascinating exercise, and now I’m eager to read more of Ms. Atwood’s work with Milton in mind. Meanwhile, for those of you who aren’t terribly excited at the idea of reading a poem that’s thousands of lines long: give The Heart Goes Last a try if you like Margaret Atwood, satire, or creepy books about marriage.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.