Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood – A Review (Part I)

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood – A Review

Rating – 4/5

As Margaret Atwood is my favorite author, my book hauls are never complete without purchasing at least one of Atwood’s books. This time it was the turn of Moral Disorder. This was my well-deserved comfort read as the past two months I had focused on plenty of authors who were new to me. Besides, Atwood always brings out the best in me both as a reader and as a reviewer. So, it is with great expectation that I approached Moral Disorder. As usual, this book gave me more than what I asked for!  Entertaining the readers through stories of relationships in life with great humor, she has also opened up a small window into her own personal life. Any morsel of insight into our heartthrob’s life is priceless for us and Atwood is to me what Kardashians are to the general public. So you can understand my excitement as I hogged up whatever small crumb she felt like including about her personal experiences. After finishing up this collection, the first thing that I did was to search more about Atwood’s life to understand which part of the book truly documented her experiences. Enough of my fangirl talk and getting on with the review.


Moral disorder is not a novel but a collection of vignettes featuring the various stages of the life of the protagonist Nell that are not chronologically arranged. Although not a memoir, many of the stories seem autobiographical to Atwood who had a similar upbringing and life as that of the titular character. The stories explore the relationships between the protagonist and the people around her at the various stages of her life ranging from parents to even ex-wives of the protagonist’s partner. Like other Atwood books, this too has interactions with animals in the form of a menagerie which abounds in comic relief. Although crafted with great wit and humor, many stories deeply explore emotional connections and succeed in moving us profoundly. This book might also evoke feelings of nostalgia in Atwood’s readers as many of the landscape and settings are similar to that of Cat’s Eye. Atwood’s crisp and eloquent prose graces the pages transforming these vignettes into intricate tales of family and friendship. 

Moral Disorder comprises of eleven stories centered on Nell, her sister, her parents, her boyfriend-turned-husband Tig, Tig’s ex-wife Oona and Nell’s realtor Maggie. Apart from Maggie, the other characters frequently move in and out of the stories giving us a sense of continuity through the individual tales. The first story titled The Bad News opens up to Nell and Tig in their old age with declining health commenting on the various newspaper headlines delivering information on the chaos around them. The representation of their domestic life, with Tig reading out the bad news every morning, being compared to a Roman life under the threat of an imminent barbarian invasion is hilarious. Like many of Atwood’s novels, this story also succeeds in giving us a vision of an imminent dystopia. Atwood defines her present life in the following words:

“These are the tenses that define us now: past tense, back then; future tense, not yet. We live in the small window between them, the space we’ve only recently come to think of as still, and really it’s no smaller than anyone else’s window.”MargaretAtwoodAfter this starts a chronological tale starting from Nell’s childhood bordering her entry into a full blown teenager. The Art of Cooking and Serving narrates the story of the 11 year protagonist who shoulders the responsibility of her mother’s pregnancy. A precocious child, she prepares for the baby by knitting baby clothes, doing chores at home and worrying over her mother’s health. The story throws light on Atwood’s upbringing with her entomologist father in a remote corner of Quebec and shows the growth of the protagonist from a worried child to a surly teenager who finds liberation from her childhood after a bitter quarrel with her mother. The eleven year old’s plan of action in case of her mother’s emergency labor is hilarious.

“I thought of a plan of last resort. I would take the canoe over to one of the small offshore islands. Then I would set fire to the island”

The Headless Horseman takes place a few years further along in time. This is a beautiful story exploring the intricate relationship between the two sisters and their parents. Atwood focuses the story more on the sensitive nature of the younger child.  Although the story is spun around an incident when the protagonist is around 12 years of age, it moves around in time exploring the shift in the relationship of the siblings. In the eyes of the younger sister, the identity of the elder sister changes from that of a mother to a playmate to an enemy and finally a friend. It portrays the universal relation between siblings based on jealousy and dissatisfaction.

Through the story My Last Duchess, a namesake of the Robert Browning poem, Atwood tells a story of the emotional and physical awakening of the teenager. A major part of this vignette is spent in analyzing the poem My Last Duchess which appears as a part of the protagonist’s English curriculum. Through the poem My Last Duchess, various conflicting feelings of the titular character surfaces. The struggle between pragmatism and idealism are discussed in this story through the interpretation of the poem. The protagonist realizes the duplicity of the world where ruthless and greedy people are valued more than the earnest and innocent ones. She rejects all the hapless heroines immortalized in the pages of literature and decides to discover for herself the essential ingredients for survival in a ruthless and cunning world.

Part II continues here


3 thoughts on “Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood – A Review (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood – A Review (Part II) | Book Escapade

  2. Pingback: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter | Book Escapade

  3. Pingback: Casual Book Haul | Book Escapade

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