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Marrying the Hangman


Original title of the paper: Gender, Feminism, and Marrying the Hangman

            In Atwood’s Marrying the Hangman the reader finds a tale, based on a true story, in which a woman found guilty of stealing pretty clothes, must then beguile a man, sight unseen, in order to avoid being executed. And while she is written as a victim of patriarchal circumstance, she does, in the end create her own salvation via this beguiled man. Both the antique protagonist, and the poem’s modern “friends” with their “horror stories” all showcase the gender role these women are assigned and expected/allowed to live within, the lack of sisterly bonding between women, and how survival often requires a certain amount of what society might have judged as ‘unfeminine’ selfishness.

            Gender is a “social class” (Cudd & Anderson 158) constructed by other people’s “cultural responses to the body” (Cudd & Anderson 166) which, in turn, positions that body (and whomever inhabits it) “within a social hierarchy” (Cudd & Anderson 161). And because “[h]ow we classify bodies can and does matter politically” all the women in the poem are leading lives, at least in part, dictated by perceptions of their bodies through the lens of gender (Cudd & Anderson 167). The man in the poem can be saved by becoming something while the woman can only be saved by attaching herself to that man. She is relegated to a lower status and has been distributed fewer “resources and opportunities” in life by virtue of the perceptions of those in power as to what a woman can and should be (Cudd & Anderson 306). Similarly the modern “friends” in the poem are written as victims of men’s definitions of women and how they can be treated. The horror stories alluded to clearly involve some kind of male on female violence – the likes of which the women find so shocking as to be hard to even believe, despite knowing it to be true – which can also be assigned to perceptions of gender. If these abusive men did not view themselves on one level and the women telling the stories on another, lower, level, it is unlikely they would feel entitled to commit these acts of violence. So the construct of gender is clearly defining the lives of these women.

            The question of whether women can “bond by virtue of their oppression alone” is a fascinating one (Cudd & Anderson 147). Within this poem, the answer seems to be no, they cannot. In the modern circle of friends there seems to be a desire to understand and bond with her friends, or at least sympathize, but the narrator is blocked by the fact that these things “have not happened to me, they have not yet happened to me, they have happened to me but we are detached.” By which one assumes either a lack of shared experience breeds distance, or else a lack of ability to address one’s own feelings about a shared experience does so. But either way there is some sort of gap preventing the women from bonding over the fact that violence and oppression of women by men is something they have, can, or will, share because it is systemic rather than personal. The prisoner also seems not to be particularly bonded with other women. Starting off with the fact she is convicted of stealing nice clothes from her employer’s wife – two women pitted against each other on the basis of social hierarchy rather than bonding as equally oppressed women in the patriarchy (could the employer’s wife not have imagined her poorer servant might enjoy nice clothes too and perhaps given the girl some of them?), and continuing with the fact that the prisoner saw a means to free herself and took it without any perceptible thought of the fact that if she availed of the opportunity no other woman there could do so. In saving herself she is actually abandoning other women to the system that would have killed her as well.

            In the second stanza of the poem there is the line, “[t]o live in prison is to live without mirrors / To live without mirrors is to live without the self / She is living selflessly.” The double entendre of the word selfless is interesting here. It is meant only to say that she is without a self-image of her own, and that she finds, in the man’s voice through the wall, a mirror which shows her herself – that, sickeningly enough, she finds herself through her reflection in a man. But it is an interesting word choice if you consider its juxtaposition against how selfish she is behaving in order to survive. In trying to save her own neck she is not only unconcerned about the fate of any other woman in the jail, but also, presumably, unperturbed by the man’s feelings or his fate. To become a hangman was not a thing to be proud of (which is why it was a ‘get of jail free card’ to begin with). And people considered him a fool for having been ‘ensnared’ by some ‘clever’ woman who had everything to lose if she could not lure him into both taking the disreputable job and marrying her. Though they “talked of love” there is not only no certainty that she really loved him, as opposed to simply wanting to avoid being hung, there is also no sense that she really cared much if he was truly in love with her. His future and his feelings didn’t matter much to her goal. She was doing what she needed to do to live, literally, and she succeeded. If she had been more bonded to the other women in the prison, she might have tried to organize something; a strike or a mass escape and been hung regardless. If she had been more concerned about his quality-of-life she might not have convinced him to marry her. But her ‘selfish’ survival instinct helped her win the day in a system rigged against her for being a woman of a lower socio-economic class without the inherent gender bias, money, or connections to save herself.

            But just as an aside, in relation to gender constructs and feminism and how society perceives, or perceived, what a woman can/should be, this poem adds an extra level of commentary. In addition to the enforcement of prescribed gender roles, and the lack of female community – both imposed by societal norms and in the face of unadorned survival – I see an added allegorical layer within the poem. Though the prisoner is denied opportunities by virtue of gender and forced to attach herself to a man in order to live – she also exercised a lot of agency. In Atwood’s references to mirrors and the prisoner losing/finding herself, and Atwood’s repeated references to the powerful facelessness of their voices through the wall, what is also there is a story of a woman condemned for vanity who quite literally uses her own voice to rescue herself.


Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “Marrying the Hangman” from Two-headed Poems. New York: Simon and

Schuster, 1980.

Cudd, Ann E., and Robin O. Andreasen. Feminist Theory: A Philosophical Anthology. Oxford,

UK Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2005


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