A solitary woman sits in conversation with a benign tumour that had just recently been removed from her ovary. As the woman speaks, the inanimate tumour, which she has named Hairball, looks on from its glass encased perch atop the fireplace. The scene is macabre and certainly unusual, but such is the life of Kat, the main character in Margaret Atwood’s short story, Hairball. Kat’s life is filled with the unusual and the shocking, a lifestyle that has been self-imposed. Throughout the years, Kat, an “avant garde” fashion photographer, has altered her image, even her name, to suit the circumstances and the era. Over time Kat has fashioned a seemingly strong and impenetrable exterior, but as Kat’s life begins to disintegrate we discover that the strong exterior is just a facade devised to protect a weak and fragile interior. Kat’s facade begins to unravel and she undergoes significant personal losses; in fact, the losses go so far as to include her identity or lack there of. As Kat begins to lose control, her mental and physical disintegration is hastened by three major conflicts: The conflict with the society in which she lives, the conflict with her romantic interests (specifically Ger), and finally the physical conflict she faces with her own body. In the end, these conflicts will threaten to strip Kat of her lifestyle as well as her name.
From the beginning of Kat’s life, she was at odds with her environment. When she was a child, she was Katherine, a doll like representation of what her mother wanted her to be. As a teenager she was Kathy, a representation of what she believed others wanted, “a bouncy, round-faced [girl] with gleaming freshly washed hair and enviable teeth, eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad.” By the time she reached University she was the not-so-eager to please Kath, “blunt and no-bull*censored* in her Take-Back-the-Night jeans and checked shirt and her bricklayer style striped-denim peaked hat” (pp.16). Finally, when she found her way to England, she became Kat, “[the name Kat] was economical, street-feline, and pointed as a nail.” The short, hard name was a reflection of her hard demeanor. Kat constantly tried to separate herself from the commonality of her environment. When she was told that her tumor was fairly common her reply was that, “She would have preferred uniqueness.” Kat wanted to stand out; she did not want to be another “Clarissa, Meliassa or Penelope,” but she understood that conformity, to the values of her society, would be a requirement if she wanted to succeed in her personal and professional life. With this in mind, Kat chose to integrate those values into her own personal approach.
She’d shaved off most of her hair, worked on the drop-dead stare, perfected a certain turn of the neck that conveyed an aloof inner authority. What you had to you had to make them believe was that you knew something they didn’t know yet. (p.17)
As the conflict between Kat and her society, she finds herself losing the fight. Despite accolades she received while working on the razor’s edge, Kat’s life is less than successful. Her relationships with competitive men and left her broken and hurt. “Twice she had abortions, because the men in question were not up for the alternative” (pp.17). Kat’s choice to “Rambo” through her life left her scarred emotionally and physically. Having spent herself in London, Kat was ready for a change. When a man named Gerald came calling from Toronto, Kat saw the opportunity for change and grabbed it.
When Gerald showed up in London offering Kat an attractive job and salary, she found it hard to resist. When Kat arrived back in Toronto and began working with Gerald, she found him hard to resist. The fact that Kat and Gerald were polar opposites appealed to Kat. She saw Gerald as a fresh canvass on which she could fashion her own masterpiece. Kat began by seducing Gerald in his office. She continued by rearranging Gerald’s tastes for clothes and hair style; she even went so far as to change his name to Ger. In the end she had succeeded in turning Ger into the man she wanted him to be, or so she thought.
As time went on it became apparent that Ger was losing interest. The more Ger became like Kat, the less interest he took in her. It seems that Kat had forgotten what she had known in London. Kat had known better than to “betray her desire,” but it was obvious that she had betrayed it to Ger. Ger follow suit by betraying Kat as well.
After Kat’s surgery for the tumor, Ger comes to visit. When he arrives Kat can’t help but notice his aloofness. Ger makes small talk but leaves rather quickly. Kat immediately notices a change in their relationship. She thinks it is Ger who has lost his attractiveness, that their relationship has become old and antiquated. Kat surmises,
He’s no longer fully rewarding. They’ve learned each other too well, they take short-cuts now; their time together has shrunk from whole stolen rolling and sensuous afternoons to a few hours snatched between work and dinner-time. (pp.20) It is at this time that Kat also realizes that something is not right at work. The phone calls for her input have been few and far between since she checked into the hospital. Kat begins to wonder if her job is in jeopardy. In a fit of panic Kat rushes to work to inspect her hunch. When she arrives at work her worst fears are realized. Ger breaks the news to Kat that she has been fired. Although this news is devastating, it pales in comparison to the news that her replacement is none other than Ger him self. Kat realizes that her creation, Ger, has become Frankenstein’s Monster. She muses, “Naturally. Betrayal. The monster has turned on its own mad scientist” (pp. 21). Back in her apartment Kat realizes that all along it has been Ger and life with that she has been longing after. She understands that the Ger she had created killed the Gerald that she was initially attracted to. Only as Kat’s conflict with Ger comes to the apex does she realize the conflict within herself.
As Kat stares at hairball she understands that her life’s struggles have been in vain. Kat comes face to face with the realization that, while Ramboing her way through life, she has missed her opportunity for happiness. Kat has squandered away her life with empty relationships and fruitless jobs. Kat wants the house with the white picket fence, the 2.5 children and the dog but understands none of those are in the foreseeable future. What Kat does see is Hairball, the “warped child” of her relationship with Ger. The tumor is not only symbolic of Kat’s relationship with Ger but also of her relationship with herself. The physical abuse her body has taken because of Kat’s lifestyle, including the abortions, has now become manifest in Hairball. Kat’s lack of foresight has caused the destruction of her mental and physical well being. Eventually, Hairball becomes the vehicle for the ultimate bizarre act reflecting Kat’s personality disintegration. She has gone from Katherine, to Kath, to Kat to being “temporarily without a name.”
The journey that Kat takes through the story, from a person defined by others to a person without definition, is somewhat of a birth in reverse. In the story the character of Kat is defined by the conflicts she faces and her inability to adequately deal with them. The more Kat attempts to find herself within the parameters of her society, work and relationships, the more she becomes lost. It is the conflicts that bring Kat to a moment of clarity as she is left broken and abandoned. It is in this state that Kat is able to lose her name and begin to reconstruct herself apart from the influences of others. Without a name Kat is now the blank canvass onto which she hopes to paint her final masterpiece.