The Other Place
The story ‘The Other Place’ is number five among the short stories in Margaret Atwood’s collection Moral Disorder and other stories. This is my favourite because it is easy to relate to on a personal level. At least for one phase in your life you live through a time of nowhere and indecision which dominates the story. It is a time when you are not sure whether you are coming or going and there is a sense of glorious aimlessness which the protagonist Nell reflects was an important time in her life.
It is a bleak chapter and Nell admits that “in reality [she] had no mission”. Her fear, which ironically gave her direction, is that if she stayed too long in a secure place, time would catch up with her and she would become one of two things either “a stringy-haired intellectual, pasty-faced, humourless, and morbid” or “a self – satisfied matron, shut up in a cage of a house that would not be recognized as a house until it was too late.” Neither of which are satisfactory options. Throughout the story there are definite glimpses of hope, interspersed with the dread, culminating in the fact that she gets hooked up with Tig.
Her situations are familiar. She is decided about wanting to be secure but her actions are contrary to her desire. In her relationship with men for example, at the first sign of things becoming serious and too permanent, she bolts. “I would have to leave” she confesses with the image of “two toothbrushes, side by side on the bathroom counter in trapped, stagnant, limped bristled companionship.”
This perceived stagnant life is perhaps what scared her that she too will be thrown into the mundane life of gardening, summer places, doing dishes and starting it all over again the next day. This is the cycle that fills her parent’s life and she was superior to them who were “immersed in mundane affairs, they were not contemplating any higher truth”. But what is her higher truth? This is not revealed categorically but only cursory at the end.
She admits that she “never got over the Grade Two reader” which depicted a romanticized family life of stability and security. There is the shameful longing for a life like her parents but this would mean turning her back on becoming like one of the melodramatic characters she admired in novel. In some sense it was not the first choice but it was recognizably a possibility and this was also part of the security and charm of the musing.
Reassured she thought that “I couldn’t keep up my transient existence forever. I would have to end up with someone, sometime, someplace. Wouldn’t I?” It is this hopefulness which indicates that to some extent her life is planned, that she will not be left alone in the other place. She was destined to obtain “frilly window curtains” and all the good that goes along with it. This gives her the courage to have “rebellious moments” from “coupledom”. And on some level, it seems that consciously she knows that things would work out in her favour an can therefore throw caution to the wind. In her reality women like her are more likely than not ever to be alone.
During her wanderings she thought herself to be “an itinerant brain – the equivalent of a strolling player of Elizabethan times, or else a troubadour, clutching my university degree like a cheap lute.” She was brought back from her mental wanderings in another place and time by the unwanted attention from both unstable married men and their untrusting wives. In her reality, women had designs on men.
Even when there was a period of freedom from the expectation that women get married, those times for her lacked seriousness. She decided that she was “raised in the age of strenuousness” and that “relaxation bored me”. This restlessness is juxtaposed to her penchant for collecting articles that were meant to contain something. These items “were little symbolic shrines to thirst. I knew they were worthless clutter, but they made it into the tin trunk whenever I packed up again.” The “shrines to thirst” seem, to represent the potential of being satisfied and was necessary in her quest to find her way in the world.
At last her life seems to come together and there is some semblance of unity. She meets Tig “and then followed the cats and dogs and children, and the baking, and even the frilly white window curtains” and for security nothing more can represent the same house she now lived in for decades.
A curious thing though is that while living in that same house, she still visits the “other place”. Her dreaming unconscious other self “cannot be convinced of its safety by any evidence drawn from my waking life. I know this because I continue to have the same dream, over and over.” In it she “missed the life that was supposed to be mine. I’ve shut myself off from it. I don’t love anyone.”
How intimately her life in the other place can haunt her even though in the present reality she has loved someone and is seemingly engaged in the world. The haunting seems to lead to the belief in how easily things could have turned out differently. How much we are just one wrong turn from making the wrong decision and ending up in a desolate “space that has many different rooms, mostly bare furniture, some with only the subflooring.” It is interwoven with the vision of house that is well appointed even with frilly curtains. “The dream frightens me, though. It with it a nebulous dread. What if it’s not in the past, this other place? What if it’s still in the After all?”
Has she truly found her security? Not the security of the shape shifting green blanket but one will cover her and not leave her raw and vulnerable like Owen who is on the “balancing edge suicide”.
She has been grounded by a lover and a home. She has escaped though not completely, a reality that was not for her. But what lurks in the future is ominous. It still has the taint of dread which would not let her go. Perhaps it is a reminder never to take things for granted, never to think that things will always work out and in the end we should not be too concerned that we have no security mission.