Introduction: Despite Margaret Atwood’s well-established literary reputation and her influence as one of the most important figures in Canadian literature, her short stories have been neglected in favor of her other writing and treated as less important and mere preparatory exercises compared to her major novels and poetry collections. The short stories Polarities and The Man from Mars that are analyzed in this article are from the Dancing Girls (1977) collection. The theme of alienation and existential dread is acutely palpable in these stories. Here, Atwood depicts the unraveling of its characters when faced with existential crises they cannot resolve; making the works of the Scottish psychiatrist, Ronald David Laing and the French philosopher, Simone De Beauvoir especially suitable for the analysis of these stories.
Background of the Study: Most of the previous research on Atwood’s short stories have focused on feminism, gender theories and body politics.
Methodology: Ronald David Laing in his book, The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness, Laing describes ontological insecurity as a condition in which the individual lives in constant fear of losing his sense of self. In order to preserve his autonomous self, he interacts with the world through an external false self and hides his true feelings and thoughts inside. Over time a psychosis can erupt in such an individual that can develop into schizophrenia because he is no longer capable of distinguishing between the outside real world and his troubled inner world and its delusions. Laing argues that a schizoid’s apparently abnormal behavior and speech are ultimately understandable as an attempt to communicate worries and concerns that have been ignored and stifled for so long, because their expression in the environment that the individual lives was not possible or permitted.
Simone De Beauvoir in her book, The Ethics of Ambiguity, argues that genuine freedom comes from a combination of several aspects of life. One must combine a passion for developing one’s own set of values with a concern for others, seeing those around us as equally free and worthy of living a life that best suits them. One must also embrace the excitement that comes with the uncertainty of the life an adventurer. She sees man’s genuine freedom in concrete goals and projects that are responsibly carried out.
Conclusion: Compared to the novel, the short story is a genre that is often ignored by critics and readers because it is assumed that the complexity and creativity of storytelling is not possible in the limited space of a short story. But Atwood is among the writers who draws the reader's attention to the importance and potential of this marginalized genre and shows that the shortness of the story does not reduce its depth and complexity. Using Ronald Ling's theories, we find out that the consequences of a world in which people neglect themselves and their inner needs lead to their painful isolation and complete loss of identity. Through De Beauvoir’s theories, we realize that the ambiguity hidden in the existence burdens man with a heavy responsibility. In her short stories, Atwood shows the complexity of her characters' lives. They find themselves alone and helpless in an alien world struggling with insoluble existential, unable to face human responsibilities, and their lack of awareness of their needs pushes them towards the abyss of psychological disintegration.