49 pages 1 hour read

Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is a work of speculative fiction released in 2015. The novel is a reworking of her Positron series for the website Byliner: four interconnected stories that were digitally released as episodes over the course of a year, starting in March 2012. The project aimed to recapture the literary tradition of serialization, but the final installment was never released, and the novel is intended to bring things together and provide the conclusion. Like Atwood’s other major works of speculative fiction, The MaddAddam Trilogy (2003-2013) and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), The Heart Goes Last takes real-world events, movements, or ideas and takes them to their dystopian conclusion. The novel follows a young married couple, Stan and Charmaine, as they attempt to navigate a devastating financial crash that sees them lose everything. Their salvation appears in the form of the Positron Project, which promises them steady work, a home, and a safe community in exchange for much of their freedom. The bizarre and almost surreal plot that follows explores themes of love and obsession, free will, and the destructive greed that plagues capitalist societies.

This guide uses the McClelland & Stewart eBook edition.

Plot Summary

Stan and Charmaine are a newly married couple when a financial crash turns the Northeastern United States into a barely functioning wasteland. First, they lose their jobs, then, when they are unable to find new ones, they lose their house and are forced to live out of their small third-hand Honda vehicle. Charmaine finds part-time work at one of the few remaining bars, while Stan spends his time watching over their car and scrounging for food, frustrated with his inability to find work. Their nights are spent in fear, worrying they will be attacked by one of the roaming gangs or a desperate individual that wants their car.

One afternoon at work, Charmaine sees a commercial for the Positron Project. She feels the spokesman is talking directly to her when he offers steady work, a home, and a safe community in a town called Consilience. She easily convinces Stan that they should check it out. When they arrive at the town, they receive a three-course meal and spend the night at a fancy hotel. Charmaine is immediately sold, and Stan is resigned to do what she wants.

The next day, the men and women are separated for orientation workshops where they learn more about Consilience and the Positron Project. Ed, the chief executive officer (CEO) of the project (and the man Charmaine saw in the commercial), explains that it is designed as a solution to the unemployment and rising crime rates that are plaguing America since the crash. They will be given a home, assigned a job, and paid a steady monthly amount while living in Consilience. At the center of the town is Positron Prison, and all the jobs will support the prison in some way. Each person will also be assigned an “Alternate” with whom they will share their house. Every other month, they will spend time in Positron Prison while their Alternate is on the outside, and vice versa. They are also informed that if they sign up, they will lose all contact with the outside world and never be allowed to leave. The news is somewhat of a surprise to Stan and Charmaine, but they sign up for the project anyway, because it sounds better than starving and fearing for their lives.

The first few months go smoothly and they are happy in Consilience. Stan works as a scooter repairman while out of prison, and tends to the chicken farm while in prison. Charmaine works at a bakery on the outside, and is Chief Medications Administrator while inside. The latter involves euthanizing inmates that are deemed too far gone to rehabilitate. On a switchover day, Charmaine runs into Stan’s Alternate—something they are forbidden from doing. He kisses her, and the two start a torrid affair, meeting in secret every switchover day. Not wanting to use their real names, she calls him Max, and he calls her Jasmine.

The affair takes over her mind, and Charmaine impulsively leaves a love note to Max under the fridge, knowing it is risky. Stan finds the note, and becomes obsessed with the idea of Jasmine and her overt sexuality. He begins planning ways to meet and confront her, and fantasizes about having sex with her. After a couple of months agonizing over her, he decides to wait for her in their home on the next switchover day. However, while he waits, he is confronted by a woman named Jocelyn, who informs him she is Charmaine’s Alternate and that her husband has been having an affair with Charmaine. Jocelyn is Ed’s second-in- command and works as the head of security. She fixes it so that Charmaine and her husband remain in prison for another month, so that Stan can stay out with her.

Jocelyn shows Stan surveillance footage of Charmaine and Max (whose real name is Phil) having sex and forces Stan to re-enact it with her. Stan reluctantly obliges and can see no way out. After months of this, Jocelyn reveals the truth: Ed is pursuing increasingly unethical means of squeezing profit out of the Positron Project and she wants to get information to the outside world to bring it all down. She plans to use Stan to sneak the data out, and she orchestrated Charmaine and Max’s affair, and forced him to have sex with her to create a fake motive for her to have him killed. Once everyone believes he is dead, he will be smuggled outside and make contact with a reporter.

While this is happening, Charmaine has no idea what is going on. She is stripped of her job as Chief Medications Administrator and told there has been a system error that requires them to confirm her identity. After a couple of months, she is reinstated. However, she is told her next job will test her loyalty. She then discovers that they want her to euthanize Stan. She feels she has no choice, and complies. Charmaine believes it is all real, but the serum in the needle has been replaced and Stan wakes up in a massive warehouse under the prison hours later.

The warehouse produces possibilibots—sex robots that come in a variety of different lines and price points. Stan is disguised as an Elvis-styled possibilibot destined for Las Vegas and packed into a small shipping crate. When he arrives, he is greeted by a team of Elvis impersonators that have been tasked with keeping him safe until he makes contact with the reporter. Back in Consilience, Jocelyn reveals the truth to Charmaine, and also explains that Ed has become obsessed with her. He hires her as his assistant, has a possibilibot made in her image, and ultimately plans to force her to undergo an experimental neurosurgical procedure that would force her to imprint on him.

Stan finally makes contact with the reporter, and is then met by his estranged criminal brother, Conor. Conor is working with Jocelyn, and explains that they need to rescue Charmaine from a nearby facility. The plan works, and instead of imprinting on Ed, Charmaine wakes and imprints on Stan—ostensibly fixing their marriage. The news story breaks, and the Positron Project falls apart. A year later, Jocelyn returns to inform Charmaine that she did not actually undergo the procedure, and is free to choose whether she wants to be in a relationship with Stan.

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