Each of the epigraphs to Oryx and Crake offers a different way to frame the narrative to come. The first epigraph comes from Gulliver’s Travels , a novel by Jonathan Swift that follows the character Lemuel Gulliver through his improbable journeys to four very strange lands. Despite the fantastical nature of Gulliver’s experiences, he claims that his main aim was to educate rather than simply amuse the reader. As such, he composed his travelogue in a plain style meant to indicate the truth of what he went through. Though clearly a work of fiction, Swift had Gulliver attest to the truth of his travels in order to suggest to his readers that fiction, though strictly made up, may nonetheless have true things to say about the world. Atwood’s use of this passage from Gulliver’s Travels suggests that though the events recounted in Oryx and Crake are fictional, they have something to say about where the “real” world might be headed. In other words, though Atwood has not based her novel on a true story, the events depicted in the novel could nonetheless become true in the future.
Atwood’s second epigraph comes from Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse , and taken as a whole, it asks what a person should do if they lack guidance, shelter, and a basic sense of safety. As the reader will find out, the sense of chaos and lack of control conjured in this epigraph applies well to the character Snowman, who may be the sole survivor of a catastrophic event and now has nothing to guide his existence in a post-apocalyptic world. In addition to this thematic significance, the Woolf epigraph also signals something important about the narrative structure of Oryx and Crake . Woolf’s novel is famous for taking place in two different times, ten years apart from one another. Similarly, Atwood’s novel follows two different narratives that take place at different times. Specifically, the novel tells of Snowman’s experiences in the present time as well as Snowman’s past. The epigraph from To the Lighthouse thus also indicates an important relationship between past and present in Oryx and Crake .
The novel proper opens on a post-apocalyptic world where the sun poses a serious hazard and the ocean crashes against piles of rusting junk. Though the reader does not yet have any details about what events led to the current situation, we find numerous references to past events in the thoughts of the protagonist, Snowman. Snowman’s most emotionally intense thoughts point to a person named Crake. Crake clearly had something to do with whatever happened. Based on the differences between Snowman and the Children of Crake, the reader can infer that the Children are the products of some kind of genetic experiments, and that Crake may have been the scientist who spearheaded those experiments. Even so, it remains unclear what the Children of Crake might have to do with the current state of the world. The fragmentary nature of Snowman’s thoughts helps build suspense by presenting partial information that the narrative to come promises to complete.
In addition to his thoughts about Crake, Snowman hears voices from the past that constantly remind him of his loneliness. The voices indicate that Snowman feels preoccupied with the life he has lost and maybe even haunted by his memories of that life. Aside from the voices of others, Snowman talks to himself. Some of what Snowman says aloud comes from books he once read, though he can’t seem to remember what they were. For example, he recites: “It is the strict adherence to daily routine that tends toward the maintenance of good morale and the preservation of sanity.” These words come from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel about time travel, Slaughterhouse-Five . Later, when he says the words “All, all alone,” Snowman is quoting a line from the British Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Both Vonnegut’s novel and Coleridge’s poem concern individuals struggling to navigate desperate situations, much like Snowman, and their inclusion in the first chapter sets the stage for a tense and stark tale.