Margaret Atwood – The Heart Goes Last

heart-goes-lastI have an academic interest in utopias.  Imagination is often underplayed in social policy, but, to me, creating future worlds is an inevitable product of redistributing resources in the present.  A current fantasy of mine, in a near-future Utopia is that one of my favourite authors has read my blog and deliberately uses the motif of Doris Day as a ploy, so that I write about her work.  Atwood understands the technology, the communication networks and the soft power of blogging.  The tens of views my blog regularly receives means she could find a new audience of social workers and policy researchers previously considered ‘hard to reach’[1].

My imagination is not complete enough to detail fully the symbiotic relationship between academic and author that would flourish in the near future, but I can at least flatter myself that Atwood (or Margaret as I call her when we text and email) have a shared understanding of the complexity and nuance that the seemingly innocent image of Doris Day can evoke.

two-dollars-a-dayThe Heart Goes Last is set in a near future dystopia following a catastrophic economic collapse.  Stan and Charmaine are living in a car, surviving on her tips from bar work and occasional dumper diving – day old doughnuts, stale fried chicken wings.  They are good people.  Charmaine is not selling her body.  Stan is not his criminal brother.  They are scared, under threat, barely surviving. There is a sense that if they could just scrape enough cash together they could drive away from the ‘rust-belt’ of the United States and get to an area that still employs.  Stan has sold his blood twice.  I note this detail, because it is a strategy outlined by Edin and Shaeffer (2016: 93 – 95) in $2 a Day.

“… twenty-one-year-old Jessica Compton donates plasma as often as ten times a month- as frequently as the law allows… Today like other days, she’s nervous.  What will happen if she is not allowed to give plasma?  The family desperately needs the $30 dollars.  They’re now nearly three months behind on the rent…”

The poverty Stan and Charmaine endure is not unlike the poverty documented in present-day cashless America.  A present so depressing, so precarious that people make desperate “choices”[2].  The “choice” that Charmaine and Stan make is to move to Conscilience[3].  This is a new town, centred around a prison (one of the few ‘industries’ which can still make money).  There is the promise of a job, a house, security.  There are just a couple of catches.  One, every other month you are a convict, working in Positron – the prison.  Two, once you’ve signed up, you can’t leave.

Conscilience is modelled on the 1950s.

“The fifties was chosen for the visual and audio aspects because that was the decade in which the most people had self-identified as being happy.  Which is one of the goals here: maximum possible happiness.  Who wouldn’t tick that box?” (page 55)

doris-day-sentimental-journeySo, in comes Doris.  She is piped music, she is permissible films, she is breezy, bright and cheerful.  She is homely, white, blond and a curious mix of hetero and a- sexuality. Her image is often summed up by the Pauline Kael quote – “I’m so old, I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin”.  What this quote encapsulates is the construction of the image.  Doris image may be all singing, all dancing cheerfulness, but actually watch her films and something more sinister comes along.  She reaches the revered status of all-American virgin, not through some essential goodness, but through hard fought battles of will.  Her clumsiness is scrubbed away (Calamity Jane, On Moonlight Bay).  Her ambition is over turned (Pillow Talk, The Thrill of it All).  Her cheerful singing is a veneer to detract from trauma (The Man Who Knew Too Much).  The self-reported happiness of the 50s, ignores the context of being sandwiched neatly between the end of the war and the birth of civil rights.  Not being happy can be read as treachery.  There is the need for deception, including self-deception, to survive.

Doris is not born a woman she becomes one.  Doris shows us the problem that has no

The plot of The Heart Goes Last is absurd and complex.  It is a muddle of genres: thriller, love-story, science fiction, cartoon, farce, camp capers.  There are gay Elvis impersonators, a head in a box issuing instructions, a Marilyn look-alike sexually fixated on a soft toy.  It is a joy.  It is funny and wry. It is deliciously wicked. But rip away the plot and the distractions, it is a novel about corporate and economic power.  Morality is removed in a system where human nature is recognised primarily as corrupt and everyone is judged guilty or potentially criminal.

Jocelyn is the character to watch.  She understands that for humanity to thrive the balance has to be struck between freedom and security.  The precarity of poverty dulls the human spirit.  The monotony of routine produces rebellion.

This is why this book matters.  There are always disagreements about how to live the good and moral life.  Through its absurdity this book poses those questions.  Can people make good choices in an absurd, disordered world?  If you are told that you are doing bad for good reasons, are you still doing bad?  How much responsibility to you bear for the lies you are told and choose to believe?

There is so much for me and Margaret to discuss…


Atwood, M. (2015) The Heart Goes Last Virago: London

Edin, K. J. and Shaeffer, H. L., (2016) $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America Mariner Books: Boston, New York


[1] “Hard to reach” is the term used within social work and policy to talk about populations which give academics/practitioners credibility if only they would let us engage with them the way we want them to.  Rarely do those who use the term consider that rather than populations it is services, workers and publications which are “hard to reach.”

[2] “Choice” has been a buzz word within adult social care provision, especially when there was such a thing as services, rather than just ‘assessment’ and ‘safeguarding’.  It is a positive word that can ignore the context and constraints of decision-making.  It places responsibility onto the individual rather than looking towards disablist structures, economic inequality and discrimination.

[3] Conscilience is a beautiful choice of name.  It is made up of convict and resilience.  Resilience is currently in favour within social work.  Sometimes it means the opposite of vulnerable. Sometimes it means undamaged.  It can be located in the individual, the situation or the community.  At its best it can be used to highlight the strengths of the human spirit, the ability to reform, bounce back.  At its worst it can be used to blame those who struggle, who are labelled as lacking resilience.  What I love about the name Consilience is its closeness to conscience – the act of knowing choices.


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