Moral Disorder was published in 2006 and is Margaret Atwood’s latest collection of short stories, which could also be qualified as a hybrid-novel. Through eleven stories, the collection gives us a glimpse at Nell’s life. The stories are at times narrated in the first person, in Nell’s voice, at other in the third person, thus giving the reader a different perspective on the narrative as well as different degrees of reliability. In the same way, some stories are told in the past tense, while others are told in the present, although these usually contain past memories.
According to Atwood, this is her most autobiographical work, except for one thing: Nell is not a writer. Indeed, there are many elements in Nell’s story that also belong to Atwood’s life from the family members to the job in university to the farm in the countryside and many of the anecdotes are actually memories from her own past, such as that Halloween when she disguised herself as the headless horseman from Washington Irvine’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. What I found more striking though is how it keeps referring to Atwood’s own work and how so many details have already appeared in previous stories thus giving the reader the impression of a déjà-vu. The first time I read it, I kept thinking “I’m sure I have already read this story”; but when I reread the other collections I discovered that it was due to these details that are recurrent in Atwood’s work.
The same themes and images favoured by Atwood are also present in this collection, although in quite a mellow way. For instance, one can see how the position of women in society has evolved in the second half of the 20th century and Nell’s ambiguous attitude towards feminism seems to reflect Atwood’s own position. Nell never appears as being a proponent of Feminism with a capital “F”, although she is to a certain extent an independent woman who, we discover, fears this independence. The discussion is more focused on the norms and conventions of society and how these works. It shows that Feminism is only another discourse imposing different norms that need to be followed and with which Nell is not necessarily comfortable.
Another concern in this collection is the subjectivity of any narrative and how interpretation depends on the perspective adopted by the reader, as the story “My Last Duchess” directly draws attention to. This story also highlights the importance of Literature as a life teaching tool while insisting on the need to go beyond the accepted reading.
Yet, one theme is much more present than in other collections, although it was already touched upon in previous stories it was not as well developed: the theme of growing old. As we witness episodes from Nell’s life since she was a kid waiting for the birth of her little sister to present days, when she is a woman whose own daughter has left the family nest and whose mother is slowly losing her senses and getting close to death, we can feel the fear growing. It is not so much a fear of dying but really the fear of growing old and losing one’s mind, like the cat in “The Bad News”. Maybe Atwood is getting older but she has not lost her ability to write great compelling stories.
Although the narrative is broken up by the short-story collection format and the time displacement, one can feel drawn into this collection and Nell’s world as if it were a novel. As always with Atwood important issues are raised while the narrative retains a certain lightness and humour making reading at the same time an enjoyable and serious activity.