Woman on the Edge of Time is a bitter, bleak book. Marge Piercy looks around at her own time and spits on it. Connie is desperate, beaten, and sad—and no one cares:
Only one person to love. Just one little corner of loving of my own. For that love I'd have borne it all and I'd never have fought back. I would have obeyed. I would have agreed that I'm sick, that I'm sick to be poor and sick to be sick and sick to be hungry and sick to be lonely and sick to be robbed and used. (19.78)
Connie is miserable, and the book shows you, carefully, brutally, why she has every right to be. Spoiler: this is not a cheerful book.
But! At the same time, the tone of much of the book is hopeful. The future looks like a great place. When Connie "assents with all her soul to Angelina in Mattapoisett" (7.120), it seems like it's the author assenting, too. Mattapoisett, without hunger or hatred, is a lovely place, and Piercy seems to think we can get there from here. That's cheery, right?
So how do you reconcile that attitude of bitterness with that attitude of hope? Well, you don't, really. That's why the novel is tricksier than a hobbit.
Does Connie ensure the future of Mattapoisett (yay!) or does she destroy that future (boo!)? You never find out; it's not clear whether the novel sees Connie as heroic or benighted, unusually clear-eyed or horribly confused. The last line—"There were one hundred thirteen more pages. They all followed Connie back to Rockover"— is clinical, like the medical records themselves, and abrupt. You don't know what the novel thinks about Connie at the end there. You're left to make up your own mind.
When you think of sci-fi, you probably think of bug-eyed monsters and lasers and Marty McFly lopping off Mr. Spock's ears with the Tardis.
But this is not that kind of science fiction. Instead of jetpacks and laser battles, Woman on the Edge of Time has gender equality; instead of a pill containing a full day's nutrition, it has equal distribution of resources.
In fact, there's some question of whether it's science fiction at all, since you're never quite sure if all that future stuff is real or if it's all just in Connie's head. In that sense, you've got two books here; one sci-fi and one not, depending on which end of the robot assassin you're looking at.
But there is no question that this novel checks all the boxes of the "Are You A Philosophical Novel?" quiz (hey, Buzzfeed: where's that one?). It questions power structures of all kinds, especially those based on gender inequality, and delivers some pretty powerful sermons about what kind of book is best.
The woman in Woman on the Edge of Time refers to the main character, Connie. She's a woman (check!) on the edge of time (check, check!): she's visited by people from the future and then she goes and visits the future. So she's a special, receptive, telepathic, kind-of-sort-of superhero.
Though, now that we think about it, you could really say everyone is on the edge of time; the future keeps zipping out ahead of you, and you keep falling into it. So the title could be seen as being about Connie's special abilities. But (especially since we're never totally sure that Connie has special abilities to begin with) it could also just be a metaphor for how everyone is balancing precariously between past and present.
The last chapter of the book is a short selection of "Excerpts from the Official History of Consuelo Camacho Ramos" (20.1). It essentially provides a brief, alternate history of Connie—the way the doctors and officials would write her life, rather than the way she'd write it herself.
Connie thinks she's sane and that she receives visitations from the future (or from several different futures) and that she hit her niece's pimp because her niece's pimp is an evil, awful person, and that she killed a bunch of doctors because they were trying to screw with her brain. The official report, says, nuh-uh, no way. You're not entirely right in your mind, Connie. You are violent and confused. Let us fill you with major tranquilizers and make you all better, OK?
So who's right, Connie or the doctors? You don't know for sure… but in the last paragraph, you learn that maybe it matters less which version is true, and matters more who's got the power. "There were one hundred thirteen more pages" of doctors reports, the last paragraph says. "They all followed Connie back to Rockover," where she'll be kept in confinement in the asylum.
Connie's own story (the novel) is over, but the doctor's reports follow her. The doctors have the power; they ultimately get to tell Connie's story and decide who she is. Her story may be that she saw the future, but their story is that she's schizophrenic, and their story wins because they're white and male and have money and education, and she's a poor Latina.
And that, just in case you're wondering, is what is technically defined as a "bummer ending."
Woman on the Edge of Time is split between two settings. On the one hand, you have 1976 New York and its environs, where Connie is incarcerated in various hospitals and asylums. Blegh. And then, every so often, she takes a psychic bounce to the future coast of 2137 Massachusetts and the town of Mattapoisett, which is… awesome.
So over here, back then, Connie is locked inside a dull, dreary institution; out there, way later, Connie is free to wander around a miraculous, happy community with nifty new technology and (for parties) fancy clothes. The contrasting settings emphasize one of the novel's main points—the present is godawful; the future is (or can be) better.
There's a great story there in Woman on the Edge of Time—but you've got to work for it a little. Time, character, plot, even what's real and what isn't can be hard to figure out. So we put it up by the Snow Line; it's a worthwhile trek, but stay alert out there in the mountains: you could trigger an avalanche if you scream, or even alert the roving packs of murderous yeti.
But like a good trek up the mountains, the payoff of Woman on the Edge of Time is a beautiful, moving vision, both of the present scenery and a pretty breathtaking future.
A lot of Woman on the Edge of Time is devoted to telling you stuff about the future, so you know how great the future is and can say, "Awesome, let's organize things like the future now. Pass the baby-birthing tubes, please."
Parts of this can read like a textbook or an instruction manual:
"Most of what children must learn, they learn by doing. Under five, fasure they need toys to learn coordination, dexterity, they practice tenderness on dolls." (7.80)
Except for the little bit of future language, that almost sounds like it's out of a child-rearing manual.
However, Marge Piercy doesn't write child-rearing manuals. Instead, in her off-hours from writing novels, she writes poetry. And even when Woman on the Edge of Time seems matter-of-fact and dry, if you look a little closer you can see the poetic language peeping out to whack you with a metaphor.
She hated them, the bland bottleborn monsters of the future, born without pain, multicolored like a litter of puppies without the stigmata of race and sex. (5.60)
Read that out loud; that's some great alliteration on "bland bottleborn monsters." Or check out the phrase "She felt bewildered with space" (12.1); that's a lovely way of describing how Connie feels when she's free of the asylum.
There's some little spark of description like that on almost every page, hidden away between the suspense and the meanness and the crazy ideal future. Connie suffers, but she suffers in a sea of beautiful prose. Maybe it's all those lovely words in her head that let her get to Mattapoisett.
Putting brain implants in a patient is not a very subtle way to try to cure insanity. And it's also not a very subtle metaphor. In the world of Woman on the Edge of Time, people in power try to control their patients with implants, just like people in power try to control people in the real world with advertisements and propaganda.
Even if brain implants are a rather clumsy, sci-fi way to say that the powers-that-be are after your brain, they are used to make some other, less obvious points. For instance, Alice's brain implant can make her want sex, and Connie notes that,
Now that Dr. Morgan had lost his fear of [Alice], there was something ugly in his demonstrations. (13.24)
The brain implants get wrapped up in sex and power, or power as sex—using them is a means not just of control, but of gaining sadistic pleasure. And that alludes to the fact that other forms of control (like Luis ordering his sister to cook and clean for him) can also include the same "something ugly."
Another important point about the brain implants is that they don't actually work very well. The doctors can turn Alice on and off and manipulate her emotions, but when they try to make Skip attack, he just hurts himself. Oops.
Then when they operate on him, they don't end his suicidal impulses, but instead they "[teach] him the value of a quick clean death," so he finally ends up killing himself (14.120). Connie uses her future-training to completely mess up the implant, making the doctors confused and cranky: Dr. Redding "paced and muttered and Argent looked glum and edgy" (16.133).
The people in power in Woman on the Edge of Time, much like the powers-that-be in the real world, always think their control is complete and that they can make those on the bottom do anything. But the novel suggests that they're fooling themselves.
The brain implants control the brains of the implantors as much as those of the implantees. And while the implants certainly damage the patients, the implants also, at times, may turn around and hurt the doctors as well. (Especially if the doctors drink coffee.)
Dawn is Luciente's daughter. She's barely in the book; she's not really a fleshed-out character. But she's important because Connie sees her as a substitute for, or symbol of, her own daughter Angelina, who was taken by her into the foster system. When Connie first sees Dawn, her "heart turned in her chest. Her heart sharpened like a dagger and stopped. 'Angelina!' she cried out […]" (7.117-118).
Similarly, Gildina is only in one scene in the book; she's the woman in the evil future who has been made over by plastic surgery into "a cartoon of femininity" (15.4). But while she doesn't have a big role herself, she is pretty clearly supposed to make us think of Dolly. Like Gildina, Dolly makes money by having sex (in Dolly's case with lots of johns, in Gildina's, with her boyfriend, Cash).
Like Gildina, Dolly is on drugs. Like Gildina she's altered her body (the speed Dolly takes has made her lose weight). And like Gildina, Dolly is controlled and terrorized by one man or another—the future guard who shows up at Gildina's door, threatening violence, echoes the first scene of the novel, in which Geraldo appears to collect Dolly and beats Connie along the way.
One way to look at these links between characters is as a nifty authorial trick. The novel is drawing parallels, and when you get the parallels you can sit up and say, "Aha! I see what you're doing! You're letting me know about a symbol!"
So what is this symbol, exactly? These parallels underline the fact that the present dictates the future. If the present is determined by those in power, women will end up as caricatures of femininity, as anatomically bizarre (and dumbed-down) as Barbie dolls.
If, however, the present is altered by the less evilly powerful, the future has a chance to contain warmth and maternal feelings. Remember that, in the novel, it is the powers-that-be that are both directly and indirectly responsible for taking Angelina away from Connie. Firstly, they indirectly cause her to go mad with grief by experimenting on her hubby, Claud. Secondly, they directly remove Angelina from Connie… and Connie thinks that this is because she was poor and hit her child, rather than just hitting her child.
But the links also bring up again the question of whether Connie goes to the future or whether she just goes into her head. Is there really a Dawn, or is Dawn just one way for Connie to think about Angelina? Is there a Gildina, or is Connie simply thinking about Dolly?
Dawn and Gildina could be doubles, or they could be clues, subtly showing us that Connie is nuttier than a fruitcake.
Future people use funny language. They say "fasure" when they mean "certainly," they say "intersee" when they mean something like "understand" and "see with me."
To some extent, the word changes are just a way to make the future seem more future-y—like giving your future warrior a laser instead of a plain old gun. But some words are also meant to give you a sense of what the future is like.
Check out the word "per." "Per," short for "person," is used (not always, but often) in place of the pronouns "him" or "her"—as in
Person said that White Cloud was the bravest individual person had ever known because when Laughing Bear slandered per, White Cloud had given Laughing Bear a horse. (10.171)
"Per," then, means a person of either gender; it's a way of using a pronoun without having to specify whether that person is male or female. And it shows the reader that Mattapoisett is a place where gender matters less, and equality matters more. This one little word sums up the radical changes in gender norms that have happened in the future: men breastfeed, babies are born in tubes, and the workload is spread across the genders evenly. You don't need to know, or care, whether someone is a man or a woman to talk about per—because all people are (when it comes to working, at least) the same.
Sybil, Connie's friend in the asylum, thinks she's a witch and "that she could heal with herbs, that she could cast spells both black and white" (4.18). Connie seems a little skeptical, and readers are perhaps inclined to be skeptical as well.
But in the book, Connie projects herself into the future and, for that matter, doctors have figured out a way to control people's brains. Are those things really more realistic than witchcraft? Is Sybil crazy because she believes she's a witch? Then what about Connie, who believes she travels to the future, or the doctors, who believe they've cured Skip?
The book is in part about the way that reality is defined by who has the power, and madness is defined by who the doctors are (or who has the right to commit you). So witchcraft in the novel is a little nudge for the reader. You believe in this, but not in that? You think she's crazy, but not her? It's a way to get you to question your assumptions—in the novel, and maybe elsewhere as well.
You see everything in the novel from Connie's point of view. This is important, because if you saw it from someone else's point of view, you'd have a better idea of whether Connie's mind is working right.
As it is, all you know is what Connie sees; if she says she goes to the future, you've got to trust her (or not), because you don't have anyone else's perspective to help you out with that. By the same token, you don't get to see the world from Luciente's perspective—if you did, you'd know Luciente was real and had a perspective. As it is, she could just be a dream Connie's having.
The one time the point of view changes is in the last chapter, when you read Connie's medical records. They certainly give you a different take on what's happened in the book. Is it more believable than Connie's? Or does it just show that the medical personnel are even more confused than you are (or than Connie is)… not to mention a whole lot more evil.
Connie gets in touch with Luciente and starts to learn about the future. She bashes her niece's pimp in hopes of getting rid of him, but instead she gets committed to the asylum.
In the asylum, Connie has more and more visions of Luciente. Connie learns she's important to the future; she tries to plot ways to escape the asylum.
Connie's escape attempt ends in failure. She gets the brain implant, then has it taken out, and it looks like worse is in store for her and her brain.
Connie starts to have trouble communicating with the future; she sees alternate, horrible futures. She determines to fight, but against what isn't clear.
Connie poisons the doctors and is shipped off to the asylum, permanently. She has lost contact with the future.
Connie is sent to an asylum for hitting the pimp who was abusing her niece, Dolly. This puts Connie where she's going to be for the whole novel: unjustly detained, powerless, generally miserable. (Oh, and Luciente shows up from the future too, suggesting that maybe Connie is insane—though not for hitting the pimp.)
The doctors decide they want to stick an implant in Connie's brain to make her brain better. This is the main conflict; if Connie doesn't escape or find some way out, the doctors are going to permanently mess her up. (And Connie's going back and forth to the future here, learning more about how Luciente's world is just and wonderful and hers… well, it isn't.)
Connie sees the war in the future, and Jackrabbit's death, and decides that she is at war herself with the wardens and doctors. Her determination to fight back leads her to be willing to take drastic measures.
Connie visits her brother Luis for Thanksgiving; she doesn't manage to escape, but she gets poison… which she uses on the doctors when she comes back. She also begins to lose touch with the future, and sees alternate futures, and generally things start to fall apart for her. And even more for the doctors, though it's hard to feel all that sorry for them.
The book wraps up quickly with Connie shipped off to an asylum permanently and her contact with Luciente broken so she won't even have her (imaginary?) friend.
Connie is committed to the asylum; she learns that they are going to put implants in her brain. She also has visions of a woman from the future, named Luciente, who shows her the utopian world to come.
Connie is determined to escape. She learns to feign unconsciousness from Luciente and uses that skill to escape. For two days. Then she's recaptured. Bummer.
Unable to escape, and having witnessed the war in the future against the powerful, Connie steals poison from her brother's greenhouse when she has the chance. Then she poisons the doctors. She loses touch with the future and is shipped off to an asylum, presumably for the rest of her life.
Many of the people in Mattapoisett are named for famous historical figures. The figures chosen are meant to tell you about whom the future honors. In a couple of places, people are mentioned who don't seem to be famous; they may be meant to refer to individuals who are in Connie's future but the future's past—that is, the future references them but the present hasn't gotten to them yet.