Woman on the Edge of Time
Cover of the Fawcett 1988 edition (paperback)
|Genre||Science fiction, utopian|
|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|LC Class||PZ4.P618 Wo PS3566.I4|
Woman on the Edge of Time is a 1976 novel by Marge Piercy. It is considered a classic of utopian "speculative" science fiction as well as a feminist classic. The novel was originally published by Alfred A. Knopf.
In the 1970s, an impoverished but intelligent thirty-seven-year-old Mexican-American woman Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, a resident of Spanish Harlem, is unfairly incarcerated in a New York mental hospital due to her supposed violent criminal tendencies. She had been recently released from a previous voluntary commitment in a mental institution after an episode of drug-related child neglect which led her also to lose custody of her daughter. Connie is caught within the government welfare and child custody labyrinth of 1970s New York City. She is after the first scene recommitted involuntarily by her niece's pimp, on grounds of violent behavior, after she strikes him in the course of protecting her niece, Dolly (Dolores), from him. Dolly had sought protection from Connie because she was being forced by the pimp into having an (illegal) abortion.
One of Connie's chief abilities is her perceptiveness and empathy. As a result, before being committed, Connie had for some time begun to communicate with ("receive" from) a figure from the future: an androgynous young woman named Luciente. Connie retains her visions and her connection, which become more and more real, even while heavily drugged in the mental hospital in New York, based loosely on Bellevue and other mental institutions of that period. Luciente is time-traveling from a future (the date is given as 2137) 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, patriarchy, homelessness, homophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, phallogocentrism, sexism, class-subordination, food injustice, consumerism, imperialism, and totalitarianism have been effectively dealt with in this world, which is governmentally decentralized in a loose version of anarchism.
In contrast to the contemporary 1970s setting in an abusive mental institution where patients are labelled "violent," "incapable," "irrational," etc. on the basis of their response to an unjust and harshly stratified class-, race-, and gender-ridden society, future dwellers experience enormous personal freedom and train one another in self-control and ways of producing win-win results in all social situations. In particular, the subjects of volition and free will, mental institutionalization, and interference in others' willed actions are key to the vision of the utopian future. Connie is introduced by Luciente to the agrarian, communal community of Mattapoisett, where children grow up in a culture where they are encouraged to know themselves and their own minds and emotions thoroughly through practicing a type of meditation from an early age ("in-knowing"), in the service of social harmony and the ability to communicate with others without domination or subservience.
This classless, gender-neutral (non-gendered pronouns are used, notably "per" or "person" for "he/she/him/her"), racial-difference-affirming society is sketched in detail, including meeting and discussion structures that eliminate power differentials as much as possible, the extensive use of technology only for social goods, the replacement of business and corporate agendas with general planning for social justice and respect for all human beings' individuality. Disputes between towns and regions are settled peacefully through discussion and merit-based competition of ideas, with the winning parties being obliged to "throw a big party for" or otherwise conciliate the losers in each case, in order to maintain friendly relations.
A 70s emphasis on individual freedom can be seen at times: each person lives in a private tent or one-room home, and children develop outside the womb of an individual and are adopted by three "mothers" (of any gender) who guard and teach them only until puberty; every person chooses their own name, and can also choose their field of study and work, as well as when to disengage from their community, or join a new one; total freedom also applies to one's mental and emotional choices—in this future world one can check oneself into and out of the equivalent of a sanitorium at will, go into or out of various kinds of therapy, or take a mental break in some other way, and no other person has the right to choose this on one's behalf. One's field of work is self-chosen, and dicta apply to both one's life path and one's mental or emotional desires, needs, and capacities: "Per must not do what per cannot do" and "Per must do what per needs to do" are applied to both personal/emotional and professional life choices insofar as possible. There are limits to this utopia, which threaten always at the margins: the death penalty is imposed on occasion, and war is in the background, but both are considered extreme and unusual measures.
Connie learns tools of emotional and physical survival from Luciente and the future population of Mattapoisett, and comes to feel that she is living at an important time in history, and that she herself is in a pivotal position; her actions and decisions will determine the course of history. In particular, it is slowly revealed that Luciente's utopia is only one possible future; alternate futures are a possibility, and the novel shows us one example— a future consumerist, hyper-capitalist, environmentally sick and strictly classist, racist, and gender-stratified society in which a wealthy elite live on space platforms, sustaining themselves by dominating and exploiting the majority of the population through total control of knowledge and technology, personal control extending to physical "farming" of bodies (harvesting organs regularly) and the surgical control of moods through the use of psychotropic drugs. Women in this intensely violent, misogynistic and homophobic world are valued and "grown" solely for appearance and sexuality, and plastic surgery that gives women grotesquely exaggerated sexual features is commonplace.
The novel criticizes mental institutions and hospitalization of its time extensively, and brings the problem of free will to the forefront as well as suggesting alternative routes to mental wellness and social reform. It does not decide for the reader whether Connie's visions are by-products of her mental instability or are literal time-travel, but ultimately, Connie's confrontation with the future inspires her to violent revolt against her institutional captors. She uses her limited means, despite her very restricted situation, in a desperate and apparently heroic way to prevent the dissemination of the mind-control technology that makes the future dystopia possible, putting an end to the mind-control experiments and prevents the lobotomy operation that had been planned for her and hundreds of other imprisoned patients. Connie acts in the tradition of revolts by oppressed or subaltern classes to put a wrench into the system of oppression within which she is caught. Though her revolutionary action ensures her own permanent incarceration and possible death sentence, and may not ensure the existence of the Mattapoisett future, Connie nevertheless sees her act as a victory, and perhaps the reader is encouraged to agree: "I'm a dead woman now too. ... But I did fight them. ... I tried."
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." 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." 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."
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." 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, 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. 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." "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.'"
- Piercy, Marge (1976). Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-394-49986-7.
- Piercy, Marge (1977). Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Fawcett Crest. ISBN 0-449-23208-5.
- Piercy, Marge (1980). Woman on the Edge of Time. London: The Women's Press. ISBN 0-7043-3837-8.
- Piercy, Marge (1985). Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Fawcett. ISBN 0-449-21082-0.
- Piercy, Marge (1987). Woman on the Edge of Time. London: The Women's Press. ISBN 0-7043-3837-8.
- Piercy, Marge (1987). Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Fawcett. ISBN 0-449-21082-0.
- Piercy, Marge (1997). Woman on the Edge of Time. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0-449-00094-X.
- Piercy, Marge (2000). Woman on the Edge of Time. London: The Women's Press. ISBN 0-7043-4656-7.
Literary significance and reception
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." 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?" 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." 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."
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." Woman on the Edge of Time "finely counterpoints the utopianism of Mattapoisset with the dystopian realism with which Connie's actual world is represented."  The novel has been analyzed as a dystopia, as speculative fiction, and as realist fiction with fantastic episodes. "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." 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.
- p. 375 of the Women's Press editions of 1979 and 1987.
- 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. doi:10.3828/extr.19184.108.40.2060. ISSN 0014-5483.
- 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.
- Hunter, Jeffrey, ed. (2014). "Woman on the Edge of Time". Contemporary Literary Criticism. Gale. 347. Retrieved March 30, 2017.
- Piercy, Marge (1983). Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. Poets on Poetry. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. pp. 100. ISBN 978-0-472-06338-3.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- "Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy". Kirkus Reviews. June 1, 1976.
- Olderman, Raymond M. (1978). "American Fiction 1974–1976: The People Who Fell to Earth". Contemporary Literature. 19 (4): 497–530. doi:10.2307/1208096. JSTOR 1208096.
- Sale, Roger (June 20, 1976). "Woman on the Edge of Time". New York Times. p. 189. Retrieved April 7, 2017.
- 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.
- Pykett, Lyn (1996). Brown, Susan Windisch (ed.). Marge Piercy: Overview. Contemporary Novelists (6th ed.). St. James, MO: St. James Press. Retrieved March 30, 2017.
- 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.