Life Before Man
Life Before Man is another chapter in Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s bleak commentary on the modern world, one that develops and expands the visions of absurdity, madness, and death of her earlier novels, The Edible Woman, Surfacing, and Lady Oracle, and of her highly acclaimed poetry. The feminist emphasis of much of her earlier fiction here gives way to a wider perspective; her male characters are as trapped by society, as powerless against encroaching oblivion, as her females. There is a good deal of sardonic humor in her depiction of marriage and adultery in contemporary middle-class Toronto, but the dominant tone is a darker one, set by recurrent images of extinction and oblivion that are linked to the dinosaur exhibits at the Royal Ontario Museum, where two of the main characters work, and to a planetarium presentation called “Cosmic Disasters” that one of them attends.
The structure of the novel contributes to the impression that modern life is mechanical and doomed. There are five parts of the book and each contains a number of brief sections, headed by a date and the name of the character (Elizabeth, Nate, or Lesje) whose thoughts are being examined. The third-person narrator reports these thoughts in a voice as detached as that of an anthropologist making reports on a foreign culture. Mores, settings, clothing, and conversations are depicted objectively and accurately, and the feelings of the characters are studied in great detail, but the reader is kept at a distance, prevented from sympathetic emotional involvement in spite of the unhappiness being portrayed.
The plot might come from any soap opera or drugstore paperback that features interlocking triangles. It begins with Elizabeth Schoenhof emotionally paralyzed by the suicide of her lover, Chris, who has blown off his head with a shotgun. Her husband, Nate, is in the process of breaking off a relationship with a secretary in the law firm where he once worked and making tentative advances to Lesje Green, a young paleontologist employed at the museum where Elizabeth is also a staff member. Lesje leaves her lover, William, to live with Nate, and Elizabeth has a brief affair with William to soothe her ego. She makes life generally difficult for Nate and Lesje by sending her two daughters to visit them regularly, demanding substantial child support payments, and delaying divorce proceedings. To get even with Nate for not being able to stand up to Elizabeth, Lesje throws away her birth control pills. The book ends with nothing resolved, the two women pulling at Nate but neither of them much interested in his well-being, and all three feeling isolated and misunderstood.
What lifts this material above the level of popular trash is Atwood’s handling of it. The three main characters are presented with considerable insight, and the shifting point of view and the skillful use of imagery underline their dissatisfaction with themselves, their isolation from one another, their inability to communicate, and the intrinsic hopelessness of their condition.
The novel begins and ends with Elizabeth, who is in many ways both the most unpleasant and most pitiable of the three. Described by one of her colleagues as “haute Wasp,” she appears to others to be an intimidating figure with the assurance that comes from being reared in Toronto’s dominant Anglo-Saxon society. She exerts considerable control over those around her; Nate’s cast-off mistress accuses her of trying to supervise even her husband’s love affairs. The reader, however, sees her as a basically vulnerable, insecure person who strives for control only to stave off chaos.
Her veneer of self-assurance covers the scars of a trauma-filled childhood. Her mother was an alcoholic; her father deserted the family when she was a small child. Elizabeth was frequently the only one capable even of buying food for herself and her younger sister, Caroline. At ten and seven, the children were rescued—stolen, Elizabeth later concluded—by their mother’s sister, “Auntie Muriel,” who provided a loveless but respectable home with “advantages” the girls were expected to be grateful for. Caroline showed signs of mental illness all through her childhood, eventually becoming catatonic and finally drowning in a bathtub in a mental hospital. The stronger Elizabeth responded by becoming a fighter. She learned how to manage money, to manipulate people for her own advantage, to struggle to preserve what was hers—husband, home, children—and she drew strength from her hatred of her aunt, who remained in her mind the terrifying “wicked witch of the west” of her childhood fantasy.
Chris’s death severely shakes her composure, and Nate’s departure further assaults her ego, although she is able to convince him and others that she is still the one in control. Auntie Muriel dies, wasting away from cancer, “melting, like the witch in The Wizard of Oz, and seeing it Elizabeth remembers: Dorothy was not jubilant when the witch turned into a puddle of brown sugar. She was terrified.” The last section of the book presents Elizabeth...
(The entire section is 2104 words.)