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Oryx and Crake

Margaret Atwood
  • Study Guide

Chapter 2

Summary Chapter 2

Analysis: Chapter 2

Chapter 2 makes a transition from the narrative of Snowman, which takes place in the present, to the narrative of Jimmy, which takes place in the past. Although they have different names, Snowman and Jimmy are in fact the same person. Snowman thinks of his younger self as a different person, and the narrative therefore treats Jimmy as Snowman’s alter ego. The distinction between “Jimmy” and “Snowman” has two functions in the novel. On a practical level, it clarifies when the narrative takes place in the past versus the present. On a thematic level, it emphasizes the significance of the apocalyptic event that radically transformed the world. Looking back on his past from his post-apocalyptic perspective, Snowman recognizes that a gulf of experience separates his present self from the person he was before the event. Put differently, Jimmy could be said to have died in the apocalypse and given birth to a new self: Snowman.

The world that Jimmy lived in differed greatly from the world Snowman currently lives in. In Jimmy’s world, corporations that specialized in science and technology had a tremendous amount of power. In fact, such corporations had so much power that they created new social hierarchies between people who worked in the science-and-technology sector and those who did not. This social hierarchy also mapped onto the landscape. Whereas those employed by powerful corporations lived and worked in affluent and well-protected areas known as Compounds, others had to survive in the increasingly dangerous and derelict cities, known as “pleeblands,” after the word plebeian , which means “commoners.” Jimmy’s family lived in the OrganInc Farms Compound, and his parents had divergent opinions about the quality of their life there. Jimmy’s father represents a compliant, corporate attitude, as he defended the Compound system, and affirmed the importance of keeping the social elite separate from the riffraff of the pleeblands. By contrast, Jimmy’s mother gives a rebellious perspective, as she found the Compound system stifling and sterile and longed for a more authentic way of living.

The question of “authenticity” also extends to the issue of genetic engineering. In chapter 2, the reader learns that Jimmy’s father played a key role in developing the pigoon, a genetically modified pig-like creature designed to grow human kidneys. Although the pigoons were not designed to be slaughtered for food, as climate change began to alter the environment and the OrganInc Farms cafeteria served more and more bacon, employees joked that they were, in fact, eating pigoon meat. Despite being presented as a humorous rumor, the employees’ inability to tell the difference between genetically modified bacon and the “real” thing has an important thematic resonance. The rumor about pigoon bacon points to a larger thematic question about whether or not the new “bioforms” manufactured by corporate scientists could be considered natural, and whether it matters if no one can even tell the difference between natural and unnatural.

Another important theme that arises in chapter 2 relates to Jimmy’s relationship with his mother, who grew increasingly depressed after leaving her job as a microbiologist at OrganInc Farms. When Jimmy was very young, he had an unusually intense attachment to his mother. The intensity of Jimmy’s attachment created confusion when he witnessed his mother’s depressive episodes. He identified so strongly with his mother that he could no longer separate their emotions, and he confused her sadness with his own. As the reader will see later in the novel, the emotional confusion Jimmy experienced early on in his relationship with his mother set the groundwork for the complex and at times tortured feelings he would develop toward her later in life. Jimmy’s early emotional confusion about his mother provides a foundation for all of Jimmy’s future relationships with women.