Things have gone absolutely to hell. Banks are collapsing, there's little food security, homes are being foreclosed on and unemployment has skyrocketed. Stan has always been steady, especially in comparison to his career criminal brother Conner. He has a job, a reliable wife and house which repairs and values. It's the typical middle class existence. When Stan is fired and his wife is laid off, Stan quickly discovers that security is only illusion. Stan and Charmaine end up living in their car, living on the tips she makes working at a bar, and spending the rest of their time being wary to the criminal element who want to take their possessions. Everything changes when Charmaine sees an advertisement on television for Positron Project located in the town of Consilence. If accepted Charmain and Stan will alternate between spending one month in prison and one month occupying a home with a job. It's absolute security from the struggles of the outside world and all they have to do is give up their freedom.
The Heart Goes Last starts off as dystopian and finishes as speculative fiction. Given the mortgage crises and the last recession, Atwood clearly chose this setting because of its relevance and reliability. As in reality, the rich continue on consequence free in opulence and privilege while the poor and the middle class struggle to survive and understand the order of the world. The middle class lie is that if we do everything right get an education, live within our means and do a good job at work that everything will be just fine. This is the promise and though it's proven to be a lie, when meritocracy is all that stands between you and destitution it's what you hold onto. In that sense Stan is the every man who finds himself in an untenable situation due to forces well beyond his control.
It's Charmaine who first suggests applying for Consilence. She wants the comfort of a bed with clean sheets and all the trappings of the middle class life. She's tired of the insecurity and the fear that someone will harm them as they try to sleep in their car. Even before meeting and marrying Stan, Charmaine had a difficult life, filled with abuse neglect and domestic violence. She was then raised by grandmother to be sweet and to only see the bright side of life. She's almost like a Stepford wife. Consilence is just too good to deny and she's even willing to sleep with Stan in the backseat of the car to make happen.
Interestingly, Consilence encourages people to be their true selves and for Charmaine, that doesn't necessarily mean being the perfect positive wife anymore who submits to sex out of a sense of duty. In the restriction laden life of Consilence she finds herself having an affair. For the first time Charmaine can be the bad girl. The one who wears the bright lipstick and gives voice to all of her slutty desires. In captivity she finds freedom but it comes at a cost. When you give up your agency, you have no control of what someone does with your image. What if someone want to operate on you to turn you into a subservient sex slave?
The theme of what is stability worth is repeated through the novel. Is it better to live in ignorance and safety than have knowledge and instability? Is personal agency valuable if it puts you at risk and makes you responsible for your actions? Is it easier to simply have the bad things that you've done erased so that you don't have to confront guilt or shame? What compromises are we willing to make for love and what do we owe our romantic partners?
The Heart Goes Last offers us the POV of both Stan and Charmaine; however, when Stan's point of view moved beyond his economic circumstances to me he read like a misogynist and not once is this fully addressed. Right until the end of the book, he disrespectful and dismissive of Charmaine, and entitled when it comes to their sex life. He only seems concerned with his own sexual gratification and doesn't think about whether or not Charmaine is sexually satisfied. He spends a good deal of the book worried that his brother Conner will steal Charmaine away from him. Stan is anything but likable and though he didn't deserve to be repeatable raped, I found his character completely unlikable.
When Charmaine's infidelity is discovered Stan is forced to into a sexual relationship with Jocelyn. Jocelyn forces Stan to act out the sexual activities that Charmaine did with her lover Phil. Atwood writes a lot of about Stan's discomfort and he's feeling of desperation. There's also a clear power imbalance between Stan and Jocelyn yet for some reason, Atwood doesn't seem to feel the need to label this as rape. At times, Stan's predicament is even played for laughs which is completely unacceptable. If a person cannot actively consent then it's not a sexual act, it's a sexual assault.