Commentary on Treatment of Women in Margaret Atwood's This Is a Photograph of Me and Spelling

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In today’s world, although significant strides have been made towards the pursuit of gender equality, women continue to face discrimination in the workplace, at home and in society. In works such as “This is a photograph of me” by Margaret Atwood, the speaker is wistful and has made herself unimportant even in her death. In “Spelling” by Margaret Atwood, the speaker explores all the different identities a woman takes on in her lifetime and how society limits women from pursuing those that deviate from her place in the home. Overall, Atwood advocates for change and progression on such gender equality issues. Atwood creates a reflection of society to highlight the perpetual marginalization of women by bringing awareness to the constraints placed against a woman’s identity and the society’s constant reinforcement of her worthlessness.

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In order to fit into predetermined gender stereotypes and inhibit women’s potential, Atwood proves the constant limitations on women’s identities as a form of oppression.

In “Spelling”, the speaker addresses a choice that most women have to make in their lives when it comes to choosing between their family or their personal development. She declares that, “a child is not a poem,/ a poem is not a child./ there is no either/or./ However.” She acknowledges the need to make a choice between being a mother or chasing one’s dream as society doesn’t let women have both in their lives. The use of effective diction in the form of short, blunt sentences has a declarative tone to it, reflecting the collective beliefs of many who accept the situation as it is and live with the constraints put on them. Ultimately, telling a woman what she can and cannot do is a sign of marginalization as it takes away her autonomy and decision making capabilities. Similarly, in the same poem, the speaker utilizes examples from history to warn against making the wrong choice in the eyes of society. The speaker refers to the “Ancestress: the burning witch,/ [with] her mouth covered by leather/to strangle words” serves as a warning to those who choose to go against social norms. The use of words such as “ancestress” imply that all women come from a history of evil and wrongdoing. Fundamentally, the use of the vivid imagery such as that of the “burning witch” is meant to scare women away from participating in acts that society perceives as wrong whether it be prioritizing a career or engaging in promiscuous acts. The fact that the speaker uses an example from history to show that the same consequences of going against gender stereotypes apply in present day reinforce society’s historical marginalization of women.

The dangerous implications of existing mindsets on a woman’s place in society are shown by highlighting female speakers who are so oppressed that they deem themselves as not worthy to be seen or recognized. In the poem, “This is a photograph of me”, the speaker describes herself in parentheses as if she is irrelevant and insignificant to the scene being described. She describes that,“the photograph was taken/the day after [she] drowned./[she]am in the lake, in the center/of the picture, just under the surface” parentheses to describe herself, there is a discernible shift in the tone of the poem. The use of parentheses devalues the speakers life as unimportant to be narrated in the same manner as the poem. As a result of this, women are conditioned to settle for mediocrity and believe that they do not deserve any better. This psychological conditioning is an example of how women are made to believe that they are less than. Similarly, the author indicates how she is overlooked to the extent that she blends into her surroundings and is not seen after her death, “But if you look long enough/ eventually/ you will be able to see me”. The effective diction directly addressing the reader using the pronoun “you” invites them to ignore social norms to see and recognize the speaker. After positioning herself as irrelevant for the majority of the poem, the last few lines are a call for help in an effort to notice her at least in her death if not in her life. However, despite this call to action for the reader, she accepts herself as worthy of being overlooked and given in to society’s perception of her in the last stanza. Ultimately, the effective diction helps show the consequences of years of systematic oppression wherein even women stopped believing that they have anything of value to offer.

In conclusion, through the works “This is a photograph of me” and “Spelling”, Margaret Atwood has created a social commentary on highlighting the ill treatment of women over generations. Constraining a woman’s identity by telling her what she can and cannot do and degrading the value of a woman’s life to condition her to think she is worthless are severe limitations of her potential and are designed to limit their progress in society. The use of effective diction, unique structure and vivid imagery allow for a holistic understanding of the fear and plight of the victim as she accepts her circumstances and prepares to live with it in both poems. Ultimately, by shedding a light on this horrifying picture of society that most choose to ignore, Atwood makes a strong case for society to acknowledge its wrongdoings and work to end the widespread discrimination against women.

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Commentary on Treatment of Women in Margaret Atwood’s This Is a Photograph of Me and Spelling. (2021, January 12). WritingBros. Retrieved July 21, 2024, from
“Commentary on Treatment of Women in Margaret Atwood’s This Is a Photograph of Me and Spelling.” WritingBros, 12 Jan. 2021,
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