Thoughts on ‘Lusus Naturae’ by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress is one of the best short story collections I’ve read. The strangest story in the collection is called ‘Lusus Naturae’, which is Latin for ‘freak of nature’. In it, our narrator is the freak. She scares people in her conservative community and, because the story is set in some distant non-specific past, her family are willing to accept her deformities as some sort of punishment. It isn’t quite clear which disease our protagonist has, but that doesn’t matter to her or her family: Feed her bread, the doctor had said. She’ll want a lot of bread. That, and potatoes. She’ll want to drink blood. Chicken blood will do, or the blood of a cow. Don’t let her have too much. He told us the name of the disease, which had some Ps and Rs in it and meant nothing to us.’

Because of this disease, the family plan to stage her death, so that her sister will be able to marry into a good family. They bribe a priest: ‘He said I was lucky, because I would stay innocent all my life, no man would want to pollute me, and then I would go straight to heaven.’ On one level, this can be seen as a story about an “inappropriate” woman being locked away,

The narrator lives for a few years, feeling ‘freer’ dead: ‘If it weren’t for the fits, and the hours of pain, and the twittering of voices I couldn’t understand, I might have said I was happy.’ But her family dies and her mother receives an offer to live in her well-off daughter’s house, and this family house is sold. The protagonist then “haunts” the house, until one day she is spotted and the town feel threatened.

The narrator is never angry about her situation. She even speculates that ‘perhaps in Heaven I’ll look like an angel. Or perhaps the angels will look like me. What a surprise that will be, for everyone else!’ The narrator is always searching for people who look like her, but she can’t find anybody. She is shunned for something she has no control over. It’s a sad story about many things, but it’s specifically addresses being shunned and what that might do to a person. ‘Lusus Naturae’ is a personal story from a viewpoint that would have been ignored at the time. Her illness would have only been discussed in medical journals, using language she wouldn’t understand. It’s amazing what Margaret Atwood can cover in less than ten pages. But she is Margaret Atwood, after all.