Woman on the Edge of Time

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Woman on the Edge of Time
Woman on the Edge of Time (book cover).jpg
Cover of the Fawcett 1988 edition (paperback)
Author Marge Piercy
Country United States
Language English
Genre Science fiction, Utopian fiction
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 369
ISBN 0-394-49986-7
OCLC 2020128
LC Class PZ4.P618 Wo PS3566.I4

Woman on the Edge of Time (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976) is a novel by Marge Piercy. It is considered a classic of utopian "speculative" science fiction as well as a feminist classic.

Plot summary[edit]

Thirty-seven-year-old Hispanic woman Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, recently released from forced detention in a mental institution for drug-fueled child abuse which led her to lose custody of her daughter, gets recommitted against her will. She was committed by her niece's pimp after she struck him because he was forcing her niece (Dolly) to have a dirty abortion. While committed and heavily drugged in a mental hospital in New York, she begins to communicate with a figure that may or may not be imaginary: an androgynous young woman named Luciente. Luciente is from the future, a utopian world in which a number of goals of the political and social agenda of the late sixties and early seventies radical movements have been fulfilled. Environmental pollution, homophobia, racism, phallogocentrism, class-subordination, consumerism, imperialism, and totalitarianism no longer exist in the agrarian, communal community of Mattapoisett in 2137. The death penalty, however, continues to exist ("We don't think it's right to kill ... . Only convenient."), as does war.

Connie learns that she is living at an important time in history, and she herself is in a pivotal position; her actions and decisions will determine the course of history. Luciente's utopia is only one possible future; a dystopian alternate future is a possibility—one in which a wealthy elite live on space platforms and subdue the majority of the population with psychotropic drugs and surgical control of moods, also harvesting these earth-bound humans' organs. Women are valued solely for their appearance and sexuality, and plastic surgery that gives women grotesquely exaggerated sexual features is commonplace.

The novel gives little indication as to whether or not Connie's visions are by-products of a mental disease or are meant to be taken literally, but ultimately, Connie's confrontation with the future inspires her to a violent action that will presumably prevent the dissemination of the mind-control technology that makes the future dystopia possible, since it puts an end to the mind-control experiments and prevents the lobotomy-like operation that had been planned for her. Though her actions do not ensure the existence of the Mattapoisett future, Connie nevertheless sees her act as a victory: "I'm a dead woman now too. ... But I did fight them. ... I tried."[1]

Major themes[edit]

Social transformation[edit]

The essence of Piercy’s utopian vision is social transformation achieved after the existing civilization had been destroyed through environmental degradation and war. “The transformation of existing society into utopia is a precarious enterprise attainable only through a process of making choices and crossing boundaries.”[2] Descriptions of Mattapoisett, the potential future society described in the novel, emphasize that collective struggle has led to their egalitarian lifestyle and collective action is how they get along so well. “What is most important in Piercy's concern with activism is the basic connection between personal action and historical change itself. The revolution is not inevitable. It is a process of change that may require appropriate conditions and happen more readily at particular historical moments, but it will not happen at all without personal commitment and struggle.”[3] The reader is left to decide whether Mattapoisett and the self-determination of its inhabitants are real or figments of Connie’s imagination. “By couching the reality of Connie's visions in ambiguity, the text questions the idealism of utopian thinking while showing that social change nevertheless starts in the realm of ideas.”[4]


In Piercy's own view, Mattapoisett is not a utopia--"because it's accessible. There's almost nothing there except the brooder not accessible now. So it's hardly a utopia; it is very intentionally not a utopia because it is not strikingly new. The ideas are the ideas basically of the women's movement."[5] Each character in Mattapoisett has a counterpart in Connie’s present world, juxtaposing differences in personal power hence, opportunities for self actualization. For example, Connie's friend Skip who has been committed to the mental institution by his father for being gay reminds her of Jackrabbit, a bisexual person who is not only accepted but very popular in Mattapoisett. In stark contrast to the mental hospital where the doctors are all men, in Mattapoisett, women have a special tradition and role in healing,[6] and positions of power rotate among men and women alike. Even traditional parental power has been done away with, and the experience of motherhood is shared among women and men, as technology has been developed to gestate babies in a mechanical brooder and men have been enabled to breast-feed.[7] Motherhood is seen as a duty to be shared equally by each parent, regardless of gender. “In addition, critics have treated the novel as an allegory for the conflict in academia between dogmatic feminism and the commitment to motherhood.”[4] “The deconstruction of power structures is continued on a linguistic level, where Piercy deletes the dimorphism of the objective and possessive pronouns 'his' and 'her,' which have been replaced with the unisex 'per' referencing the single personal pronoun 'person.'”[8]

Publication history[edit]

Literary significance and reception[edit]

Early reviews called the novel absorbing and exciting and beautifully written, but also polemical and didactic. Piercy’s utopia was noted for “literally embodying every ideal of the counterculture/Movement: ecological wisdom, community, androgyny, ritual, respect for madness, propertylessness, etc.”[9] At the time, leaving the Sixties behind, American novels generally shared a post-apocalyptic feeling, asking “what are to be the new social and spiritual arrangements now that the old ones are completely shattered?”[10] In that context, Roger Sale, in the New York Times, found nothing new in Woman on the Edge of Time, calling the book imitative and derivative, and pointing out that “the major instruments … are terribly familiar pieces of apparatus, the mental hospital and a utopian community of the future.”[11] Academic reviews, however, placed the novel among the important innovative fiction of the mid-1970s, characteristically works of social realism, all in some way describing a “new consciousness,” “even though they don't always use the techniques of verisimilitude, and despite the mythical dimension of their representative characters.”[10]

Combining feminist ideals with utopian visions of a future society based on principles of community and equality, Piercy imagined a post-apocalyptic world that established Woman on the Edge of Time as an early feminist innovation in the traditionally male genre of dystopian fiction. Depictions of sexuality and relations between the genders were already recognized as useful elements in depicting the conflict between individual and societal demands. “For example, the governments of dystopian societies like those described in We, Brave New World, and 1984 all focus on sexuality as a crucial matter for their efforts at social control. And it is also clear that this focus comes about largely because of a perception on the part of these governments that sexuality is a potential locus of powerful subversive energies.”[12] Woman on the Edge of Time “finely counterpoints the utopianism of Mattapoisset with the dystopian realism with which Connie's actual world is represented.” [13] The novel has been analyzed as a dystopia, as speculative fiction, and as realist fiction with fantastic episodes.[8] "By her vivid and coherent descriptions of new social institutions, Piercy has answered the famous Cold War dystopias like 1984 and Brave New World which lament that there is no possibility of imagining an anti-totalitarian society."[14] The book is often compared with other feminist utopian or dystopian fantasies such as Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, Joanna Russ's The Female Man, Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.[13]


  1. ^ p. 375 of the Women's Press editions of 1979 and 1987.
  2. ^ Afnan, Elham (Winter 1996). "Chaos and Utopia: Social Transformation in 'Woman on the Edge of Time'". Extrapolation. Kent State University Press. 37 (4): 330–340. ISSN 0014-5483. Retrieved April 7, 2017 – via EBSCOhost Literary Resource Center. 
  3. ^ Moylan, Tom (2014) [1986; Originally published in Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination, Methuen, 1986, pp. 121-155]. Hunter, Jeffrey, ed. "Marge Piercy, 'Woman on the Edge of Time'". Contemporary Literary Criticism. Gale. 347. Retrieved March 30, 2017 – via Literature Resource Center. 
  4. ^ a b Hunter, Jeffrey, ed. (2014). "Woman on the Edge of Time". Contemporary Literary Criticism. Gale. 347. Retrieved March 30, 2017 – via Literature Resource Center. 
  5. ^ Piercy, Marge (1983). Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. Poets on Poetry. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. p. 100. ISBN 978-0-472-06338-3. 
  6. ^ Walker, Sue B. (2000). Giles, James R.; Giles, Wanda H., eds. "Marge Piercy". Dictionary of Literary Biography. American Novelists Since World War II: Sixth Series. Gale. 227. Retrieved March 30, 2017 – via Literature Resource Center. 
  7. ^ Orr, Elaine (Spring 1993). "Mothering as Good Fiction: Instances from Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time". Journal of Narrative Fiction. 23 (2): 61–79. JSTOR 30225380. 
  8. ^ a b Shands, Kerstin W. (2014) [1994; Originally published in The Repair of the World: The Novels of Marge Piercy, Greenwood Press, 1994, pp. 65-82]. Hunter, Jeffrey, ed. "Woman on the Edge of Time". Contemporary Literary Criticism. Gale. 347 – via Literature Resource Center. 
  9. ^ "Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy". Kirkus Reviews. June 1, 1976. 
  10. ^ a b Olderman, Raymond M. (1978). "American Fiction 1974–1976: The People Who Fell to Earth". Contemporary Literature. 19 (4): 497–530. JSTOR 1208096 – via JSTOR. 
  11. ^ Sale, Roger (June 20, 1976). "Woman on the Edge of Time". New York Times. p. 189. Retrieved April 7, 2017. 
  12. ^ Booker, M. Keith (November 1994). "Woman on the Edge of a Genre: The Feminist Dystopias of Marge Piercy". Science Fiction Studies. 21 (3): 337–350. JSTOR 4240370 – via JSTOR. 
  13. ^ a b Pykett, Lyn (1996). Brown, Susan Windisch, ed. Marge Piercy: Overview. Contemporary Novelists (6th ed.). St. James, MO: St. James Press. Retrieved March 30, 2017. 
  14. ^ Du Plessis, Rachel Blau (1985). Showalter, Elaine, ed. For the Etruscans. The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 271–291. 
  • Lefanu, Sarah (1988). In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction. London: The Women's Press. ISBN 0-7043-4092-5. 
  • Lefanu, Sarah (1989). Feminism and Science Fiction. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-23100-0.  (U.S. variant title of preceding)

External links[edit]