One of the epigraphs that opens this section of the book is an excerpt from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1855 poem Maud. It reads: “My heart would hear her and beat, / Were it earth in an earthy bed; / My dust would hear her and beat, / Had I lain for a century dead; / Would start and tremble under her feet, / And blossom in purple and red.”
Tennyson’s poem is narrated by a young man so in love with a woman called Maud—and so devastated by her untimely death—that he temporarily goes insane. This quotation reflects the narrator’s eternal passion for Maud. In the context of Atwood’s novel, this epigraph seems to suggest the deep bond shared by Grace and Mary Whitney, who dies in the last chapter of this section of the novel. As such, this quotation hints at the fact that Grace’s feelings for Mary may have exceeded friendship; she may have been in love with her. Even if one does not interpret the novel this way, this epigraph undoubtedly speaks to the power of memory in showing how the memories of a loved one can linger on indefinitely even after that person’s death.
Simon dreams of swimming in the sea, grasping onto objects floating by, “things that were his father’s once, but sold after his death.” He eventually sees his father, who is growing tentacles, “in the sinuous process of coming back to life.” Simon awakens in the morning, realizing that his conversation with Grace has prompted this dream; “one father leads to another,” he thinks.
Simon’s dream suggests that he may have had a more complex relationship with his father than the reader is privileged to know about. This raises the question, then, of whether Simon is a reliable narrator. (Though Simon does not narrate in the first person, presumably the omniscient voice that does narrate Simon’s chapters would know everything about Simon’s life, were he a trustworthy character.) The fact that Simon attributes the subject of his dream to his earlier conversation with Grace also shows how much power Grace is beginning to have over not only Simon’s conscious mind, but his subconscious as well.
Simon sits down to record his dream. Behind him, the door opens and he calls to Dora to leave his breakfast tray on the table. When he hears a crash, he turns around to find his landlady, Mrs. Humphrey, collapsed on the floor, covered in remnants of his breakfast. Simon carries Mrs. Humphrey to the bed in his room and revives her with smelling salts. As she lies unconscious on his bed, Simon has a vision of Mrs. Humphrey “kicking spasmodically, making faint mewing noises while being savaged by a hulking figure that bears no resemblance at all to himself; although—from above, and from the back, which is his point of view during this sordid scene—the quilted dressing-gown looks identical.”
Simon’s fantasy about Mrs. Humphrey amounts to a rape fantasy. This is disturbing in many ways, not least of which is the fact that Simon has consistently expressed distaste for, even derision of, Mrs. Humphrey—yet he still manages to see her in a sexual light. This further affirms the fact that Simon sees women fundamentally as sexual objects. The fact that his fantasy involves him overpowering Mrs. Humphrey (who is only semi-conscious at the time Simon has this fantasy) shows how intoxicated he is by the idea of having not only social but also physical power over women. All of this is made more unsettling by the fact that Simon is a physician, which means he has cause to care for unconscious women on an at least semi-regular basis. This fantasy—which Simon does not register as unusual or problematic in the least—is the first major example of why Simon is a far from trustworthy narrator, since he is incapable of seeing women for who they actually are, beyond their anatomy.
When Mrs. Humphrey regains consciousness, she tells Simon that she had to let Dora go, because she could not pay her. Major Humphrey took money from Mrs. Humphrey two days ago and she has not seen or heard form him since. Mrs. Humphrey solicits Simon’s advice, and he advises her to contact a woman friend. “Women help each other;” he thinks; “caring for the afflicted is their sphere.” Mrs. Humphrey replies that she has no friends, because she’s new to Kingston and her husband discouraged her from having visitors. Simon suggests Mrs. Humphrey eat something, but since there is “nothing but water” in the house and Mrs. Humphrey is still weak, Simon finds himself shopping for food at the market.
Simon’s notion that “caring for the afflicted” is a woman’s job is ironic given his position as a physician. His desire to get Mrs. Humphrey off his hands also implies that he does not take her troubles seriously; he would rather foist her off onto another woman, someone he thinks would be more likely and able to sympathize with her. The details of this passage (namely Mrs. Humphrey’s marriage to the Major) further highlight the socially disadvantaged position of women in this society. Finally, Simon’s almost total ineptitude at shopping for food exposes the fact that his gender and social class have rendered him unable to meet his own fundamental needs without the help of (predominantly female) servants.
Simon returns with food and he and Mrs. Humphrey eat together. He asks Mrs. Humphrey whether there is something she can do to earn money and she says, “Women like me have few skills they can sell.” Simon hears “a hint of malicious irony in her voice” and wonders, “Does she know what he was thinking as she lay unconscious on his unmade bed?” Almost involuntarily Simon finds himself offering to advance Mrs. Humphrey two months’ rent.
Simon’s conviction that he hears “malicious irony” in Mrs. Humphrey’s voice is questionable. Given the fact that he is virtually unable to look at a woman—even one to whom he claims not to be sexually attracted—without having sexual thoughts, it seems plausible that Simon has invented this innuendo on the part of Mrs. Humphrey. Instead, it seems likely that Mrs. Humphrey might be depressed or even angry about the fact that the only recourse she has to support herself is prostituting her body. This moment again shows that the reader might not be able to rely on Simon’s interpretation of the characters around him. Simon is thus just as unreliable a narrator—if not a more unreliable one, since his very profession should render him objective—than Grace. The alternating narration of the novel is thus operating on a meta-level to undermine the beliefs of the characters in the novel, who have been socially conditioned to see men as more objective, rational, and “sane” than women.