Critical Context

Margaret Atwood’s is one of the strongest North American literary voices in the last half of the twentieth century. Her novels, popular in her native Canada, are immensely popular in the United States as well. Primarily a novelist, she is also a short-story writer, poet, essayist, and literary critic of real merit. The range of her work, in fact, is broader than that of most of her contemporaries.

In Surfacing (1972), Atwood probes the psyche of one young woman, as she plunged into the depths of her own prehistory. While that short novel explores some of the sexual relationships around the central character, the focus is much more psychological. It is also mythological, and if the major metaphor in Life Before Man is paleontology, in Surfacing it is the ancient pictographs that the woman finds in the lake where she searches, symbolically as well as literally, for her father. In The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), Atwood describes sexual and social relationships in some distant future when most women are slaves.

Atwood’s interests parallel those of many other contemporary writers. Nate, for example, may remind readers of the characters in the novels of Saul Bellow or Bernard Malamud like Tommy Wilhelm in Bellow’s Seize the Day (1956), Nate is ineffectual and indecisive. Atwood’s central focus on women’s control of their own lives is certainly the concern of a number of women writers, from Marilyn French (The Women’s Room, 1977) through Gail Godwin (A Mother and Two Daughters, 1982) and Ellen Gilchrist (The Annunciation, 1983) to any number of writers who continue to depict the changing world of sexual relationships.

Given its critical context and the changing roles and relationships in the modern world, Life Before Man itself seems something of a throwback. Its characters are mired in behavior and attitudes that are peculiarly those of the 1960’s and the early 1970’s, and from which many men and women have been trying to free themselves. The novel is alternately amusing and sad: amusing because the characters are so dated, and sad because they cannot find any happiness in their prehistoric world. Yet the novel does not point to any future; with its dinosaur imagery, it confirms that this is a life in danger of extinction. As for what lies ahead, Atwood does not attempt to predict.