Margaret Atwood

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How might one offer a psychoanalytical reading of poems in the collection titled The Journals of Susanna Moodie, by Margaret Atwood?

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Psychoanalytic criticism, which derives from the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud, has traditionally emphasized the conflict between three elements of the human mind. These elements are the id (the individual unconscious, which is associated with the desire to experience pleasure and avoid pain); the ego (the conscious, rational mind, which must deal with reality); and the superego (the voice of morality, conscience, or obligations to higher principles).

The poems included in Margaret Atwood’s book titled The Journals of Susanna Moodie can often be interpreted in terms of these basic psychoanalytical concepts.  In “Disembarking at Quebec,” for instance, the speaker (Susanna Moodie, an early immigrant to Canada), contrasts her own restrained reaction to the new world with the reactions of some of her fellow immigrants.  These others “leap” and “shout / Freedom!” They thus express the primal, enthusiastic responses of their ids, whereas Moodie’s own reaction seems governed far more by the rational ego. Similarly, her voice in the poem titled “Further Arrivals” also seems calm and rational; she relies on her intellect rather than giving vent to any passionate emotions dictated by the id. Once again, her rational behavior contrasts with the pleasure-seeking responses of some of the other immigrants, who

threw off their clothes

and danced like sandflies

Moodie expresses no overt disapproval of their behavior (if she did express such disapproval, she would be speaking in the voice of the superego). Instead, she merely reports the behavior, neither endorsing it not condemning it, but certainly not participating in it. So far, Moodie seems a realist, more likely to be centered in the ego than in either the id or the superego.

Later in the same poem, however, Moodie does express emotions that seem to spring from her id, when she refers to feeling “fears hairy as bears” or when she senses “malice in the trees’ whispers.” Yet the final lines of this poem suggest Moodie’s use of her intellect to come to term with fears and to understand them rather than merely giving into them.

Moodie’s rational reactions to her new environment continue in the poem titled “First Neighbours,” in which she seems to feel no temptation to respond with anger and bitterness to the taunting she suffers, and in which she also seems to accept the undeniable reality of the fact that England is now definitely in her past. Throughout the rest of this poem, in fact, we can see her resolving to deal in rational ways with the challenges presented by her new home.

The first part of “The Planters,” however, stresses the rational responses of Moodie’s husband and his male friends to their new surroundings, while the end of the poem stresses, in contrast, Moodie’s own fears. For the first time in the poems discussed, she seems to acknowledge – and not resist – the strength of her id, the power of her emotions. This emphasis on strong and even somewhat bizarre emotions becomes even more pronounced in the poem titled “The Wereman,” in which Moodie begins to fantasize – a sure sign of psychological movement away from the ego and toward the id.

Perhaps the most intriguing fact about the poems discussed above is the relative absence of references to the superego. “God,” surprisingly, is never mentioned, nor does the speaker seem troubled by her own conscience or by the consciences of others.


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