Death by Landscape

by Margaret Atwood
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In Margaret Atwood's "Death by Landscape," how have the significant losses throughout Lois' life created isolation in her life?

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Lois is isolated in the sense that, at the end of her life, she is alone in a condo. Her husband is dead, and her children are grown. She is glad to “not to have to worry about the lawn,” or any of the other responsibilities of owning a house,...

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Lois is isolated in the sense that, at the end of her life, she is alone in a condo. Her husband is dead, and her children are grown. She is glad to “not to have to worry about the lawn,” or any of the other responsibilities of owning a house, or, presumably, of caring for a family. In fact, her whole life has been one of disengagement. As Atwood writes,

Even at the time she never felt she was paying full attention. She was tired a lot, as if she was living not one life but two: her own, and another, shadowy life that hovered around her and would not let itself be realized, the life of what would have happened if Lucy had not stepped sideways and disappeared from time.

Lois’s isolation, or the life she is missing, is connected to Lucy’s disappearance. The pictures in her condo, “everyone of them a picture of Lucy,” are portals into that alternate life. Lois’s fixation on Lucy, even after all these years, is based on the assumption that something about her inalterably changed the day of the accident. Cappie’s gentle suggestion that perhaps Lois “did something” to Lucy—like push her off the cliff—is more than an injustice: it transforms her identity. Others think of Lois as having “done something,” but the bitter irony is that Lois’s inaction, or her need to follow camp etiquette by giving Lucy privacy while she pees, is what haunts her. Because she was not present, she can never know what happened to Lucy, or what her life might have been if she had not disappeared. In this sense, Lois’s isolation is as much from herself, and her own sense of agency, as it is from other people.

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In "Death By Landscape" loss and isolation are inextricably linked. Indeed, the main theme of Margaret Atwood's short story is arguably the way in which loss, if not properly dealt with, can lead to a profound sense of isolation.

Loss of one kind or another is a permanent fixture in Lois's life. Her husband Rob has passed away; her children have grown up and flown the nest; she finds herself constantly haunted by the memory of her lost childhood friend, Lucy. All alone in her apartment, Lois is also isolated from nature, her only experience of which is a view of Lake Ontario from the window.

However, something inside her constantly draws her back to the wilderness, even though it cannot bring her any semblance of peace. She adorns her walls with wilderness landscapes, despite the fact that these paintings fill her with a sense of unease. As an adult, Lois now attempts to do something she could never do as a child: reconcile herself to the wilderness to which Lucy was lost all those years ago. Sadly, the very nature of that landscape has now changed completely. No longer is it seen as a place of beauty, fun or recreation; now it takes on a truly sublime appearance, at once majestic and terrifying.

On the face of it, it may appear that Lois's behavior is masochistic. Why on earth would she surround herself with paintings depicting an environment which so unnerves her and evokes such deeply traumatic childhood memories? On closer inspection, however, we see that the overall picture is much more complicated. By hanging so many wilderness landscapes on the wall, Lois is attempting to create her own little world, a world of artificial nature which, unlike the wilderness of Camp Manitou, she hopes to control.

Unfortunately, she does not. Lois's admission that the paintings make her feel uneasy would seem to suggest that the artificial landscapes exert as much control over her as the real one continues to do.

At the same time, Lois looks upon her painting collection as a way of keeping Lucy alive. We never find out exactly what happened to Lucy, but Lois is so profoundly affected by her friend's disappearance that she grieves over her loss as if she were dead. Additionally, she can never fully come to terms with her loss. Why? She cannot because she has isolated herself from reality, meaning that she will never be able to confront the traumas of her troubled past and achieve some measure of peace.

So long as Lois fails to confront her demons, she will remain forever trapped in a dark place between a real wilderness and a fake one. Whichever way she turns, the painful loss she suffered and the debilitating isolation that goes with it will forever endure.

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