Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The meaning of Life Before Man is not altogether clear, for, while there are a number of themes, the final message seems blurred. On one level, the novel is about the effect the past has on the present. All three major characters are who they are because of their childhoods: Nate and Lesje are still acting as children, and Elizabeth is living her life in reaction against her past. (It is interesting to note that few people in the novel know Elizabeth’s background.)

Yet what kind of present is it? The best answer lies in the paleontological imagery that Atwood weaves into her story. Lesje sits each day sorting drawers of dinosaur teeth yet she is barely able to keep the contents of her own life in order. When readers first meet her, “Lesje is wandering in prehistory.” Later, living with Nate, she longs for “that prehistoric era during which she lived with William.” The men in particular are like neanderthals, a dying breed, in their approach to women. The novel is about “life before man,” about the prehistory to truly civilized sexual relations. “The dinosaurs didn’t survive and it wasn’t the end of the world,” Lesje thinks at the beginning of the novel. “Dinosaurs are dead,” Nate tells her one day. “But I’m still alive.” “Are you sure?” she asks.

Little is lasting in the late 1970’s not lives, not marriages, not selves. Atwood’s novel may be a fictional illustration of the kind of sociological...

(The entire section is 526 words.)