By Catie Summers, V Form
Which Woman is the Wicked Witch? Atwood’s Feminist Revision of Witch Hangings
The inspiration for Margaret Atwood’s poem “Half-Hanged Mary” was drawn from Atwood’s ancestor Mary Webster. Yet, Atwood’s eerie portrayal of a seventeenth-century woman’s battle with death, inner demons, and societal norms is written with a punch of feminist revision. Throughout Atwood’s poem, “Half-Hanged Mary,” particularly in the third and fourth stanzas, the foundation of a true, yet uncanny, occurrence is laced with a feminist revision of the history in question: that of witch-hunting in the seventeenth-century America.
As the poem begins, the female narrator lays out for the reader the so-called criminal reasons she has been accused of witchcraft and hanged. The narrator was hanged for “having a sunburned skin, / tattered skirts, [and] few buttons” (Atwood 3.2-3). These qualities are linked to the narrator’s socioeconomic status. The “sunburned skin” is a sign of working outside in the fields, rather than inside where a female would usually spend her time. So, from this one line, Atwood has supplied a visual of the narrator’s working life as well as an obvious difference from most women of the time. In relation to her “tattered skirts” and “few buttons,” Atwood further implies the position of the narrator in society. She is a woman, so she is already noted as inferior, but her economic class is even lower, for she wears tatty garments and cannot afford more buttons.
As the narrator’s working position alludes to her societal separation from other women, so do her qualities of “living alone, … and [owning] a weedy harm in [her] own name” (3.1,4). Women in seventeenth-century America did not usually live free of the control of a male, father, husband, or brother, let alone own property. Here, the narrator has separated herself from other women by simply having some of the freedom most regularly exercised by men. The most prominent quality the narrator implies that led to her accusation and execution was her gender, expressed blatantly when she describes “[her] breasts… whenever there’s talk of demons / these come in handy” (4.1,3,4). As breasts are a universal symbol for femininity, they are used in the poem as a means to portray the narrator’s gender as her most “witch-like” quality. She even links her gender to the talk of demons and witches by describing her gender’s ability to attract talk of witchcraft and accusations of it. These qualities, however, are linked to the accusation of witchery due to Atwood’s feminist revision of the history involved with this particular execution.
Blame’s uncanny way of pointing at people who hold the qualities of femininity, poverty, low social status, and rebelliousness to society’s norms, were not directly recognized by the court or the accusers of “witches.” These qualities of witches were only dubbed qualities of witches due to the systematic execution of those who differed from the majority, but they were not recognized or recorded as such. Atwood has presented “Half-Hanged Mary” through a veil of sardony which acts as a feminist revision of history. It was not recorded that these specific qualities were what lead the narrator to her failed execution, but their acknowledgment in this writing pertains to a feminist narrative where the truth about the reasons the “witches” were accused is suddenly visible for the audience, so unlike the societies in seventeenth-century America.
In the third and fourth stanza of “Half-Hanged Mary,” Margaret Atwood rewrites a dramatized yet feminist version of the history about the execution of her ancestor Mary Webster. The list of seemingly normal qualities of modern women discussed in the poem, which were known as qualities of witches, are presented in a dark shadow to cast a grim and subtle mockery of the system of condemning witches in seventeenth-century America.
Catie Summers is a V form boarding student from Amherst, New Hampshire. Her favorite classes are English and studio art.