Marrying the Hangman

By Margaret Atwood b. 1939 Margaret Atwood
She has been condemned to death by hanging. A man
may escape this death by becoming the hangman, a
woman by marrying the hangman. But at the present
time there is no hangman; thus there is no escape.
There is only a death, indefinitely postponed. This is
not fantasy, it is history.

*

To live in prison is to live without mirrors. To live
without mirrors is to live without the self. She is
living selflessly, she finds a hole in the stone wall and
on the other side of the wall, a voice. The voice
comes through darkness and has no face. This voice
becomes her mirror.

*

In order to avoid her death, her particular death, with
wrung neck and swollen tongue, she must marry the
hangman. But there is no hangman, first she must
create him, she must persuade this man at the end of
the voice, this voice she has never seen and which has
never seen her, this darkness, she must persuade him
to renounce his face, exchange it for the impersonal
mask of death, of official death which has eyes but
no mouth, this mask of a dark leper. She must
transform his hands so they will be willing to twist
the rope around throats that have been singled out
as hers was, throats other than hers. She must marry
the hangman or no one, but that is not so bad. Who
else is there to marry?

*

You wonder about her crime. She was condemned
to death for stealing clothes from her employer, from
the wife of her employer. She wished to make herself
more beautiful. This desire in servants was not legal.

*

She uses her voice like a hand, her voice reaches
through the wall, stroking and touching. What could
she possibly have said that would have convinced him?
He was not condemned to death, freedom awaited
him. What was the temptation, the one that worked?
Perhaps he wanted to live with a woman whose life
he had saved, who had seen down into the earth but
had nevertheless followed him back up to life. It was
his only chance to be a hero, to one person at least,
for if he became the hangman the others would
despise him. He was in prison for wounding another
man, on one finger of the right hand, with a sword.
This too is history.

*

My friends, who are both women, tell me their stories,
which cannot be believed and which are true. They
are horror stories and they have not happened to me,
they have not yet happened to me, they have
happened to me but we are detached, we watch our
unbelief with horror. Such things cannot happen to
us, it is afternoon and these things do not happen in
the afternoon. The trouble was, she said, I didn’t
have time to put my glasses on and without them I’m
blind as a bat, I couldn’t even see who it was. These
things happen and we sit at a table and tell stories
about them so we can finally believe. This is not
fantasy, it is history, there is more than one hangman
and because of this some of them are unemployed.

*

He said: the end of walls, the end of ropes, the opening
of doors, a field, the wind, a house, the sun, a table,
an apple.

She said: nipple, arms, lips, wine, belly, hair, bread,
thighs, eyes, eyes.

They both kept their promises.

*

The hangman is not such a bad fellow. Afterwards he
goes to the refrigerator and cleans up the leftovers,
though he does not wipe up what he accidentally
spills. He wants only the simple things: a chair,
someone to pull off his shoes, someone to watch him
while he talks, with admiration and fear, gratitude if
possible, someone in whom to plunge himself for rest
and renewal. These things can best be had by marrying
a woman who has been condemned to death by other
men for wishing to be beautiful. There is a wide
choice.

*

Everyone said he was a fool.
Everyone said she was a clever woman.
They used the word ensnare.

*

What did they say the first time they were alone
together in the same room? What did he say when
she had removed her veil and he could see that she
was not a voice but a body and therefore finite?
What did she say when she discovered that she had
left one locked room for another? They talked of
love, naturally, though that did not keep them
busy forever.

*

The fact is there are no stories I can tell my friends
that will make them feel better. History cannot be
erased, although we can soothe ourselves by
speculating about it. At that time there were no
female hangmen. Perhaps there have never been any,
and thus no man could save his life by marriage.
Though a woman could, according to the law.

*

He said: foot, boot, order, city, fist, roads, time,
knife.

She said: water, night, willow, rope hair, earth belly,
cave, meat, shroud, open, blood.

They both kept their promises.

NOTES: Jean Cololère, a drummer in the colonial troops at Québec, was imprisoned for duelling in 1751. In the cell next to his was Françoise Laurent, who had been sentenced to hang for stealing. Except for letters of pardon, the only way at the time for someone under sentence of death to escape hanging was, for a man, to become a hangman, or, for a woman, to marry one. Françoise persuaded Cololère to apply for the vacant (and undesirable) post of executioner, and also to marry her.

—Condensed from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume III, 1741-1770

Margaret Atwood, “Marrying the Hangman” from Selected Poems 1976-1986. Copyright © 1987 by Margaret Atwood. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Source: Two-Headed Poems (1978)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Margaret Atwood b. 1939

POET’S REGION Canada

Subjects Marriage & Companionship, Gender & Sexuality, Crime & Punishment, Living, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Prose Poem

 Margaret  Atwood

Biography

Regarded as one of Canada’s finest living writers, Margaret Atwood is a poet, novelist, story writer, essayist, and environmental activist. Her books have received critical acclaim in the United States, Europe, and her native Canada, and she has received numerous literary awards, including the Booker Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Governor General’s Award, twice. Atwood’s critical popularity is matched by her . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Marriage & Companionship, Gender & Sexuality, Crime & Punishment, Living, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION Canada

Poetic Terms Prose Poem

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.