Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588
“All Bread” expresses the core of Atwood’s vision: humankind’s love-hate relationship with the natural world, as well as with the dichotomies of its own nature. This vision is delineated through a voice that is ironic in tone, suitable for exploring the conflicts and ambiguities of humankind’s struggles to survive both physically and psychically.
In an earlier poem, “Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer” (The Animals in That Country, 1968), Atwood defines the power struggle between humans and nature as “the tension/ between subject and object.” Part of this tension lies in humans’ recognition of nature as mainly predatory, and of human existence as a struggle both to survive and also to subvert these same predatory tendencies in the human character. The very real struggles of early Canadian settlers from Europe, many of whom were unsuited to the harsh Canadian climate and landscape, have provided Atwood with the perfect metaphor for exploring the nature-humankind relationship. In her own study, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), Atwood concludes the chapter “Nature the Monster” by observing, “Nature is a monster, perhaps, only if you come to it with unreal expectations or fight its conditions rather than accepting them or learning to live with them.”
The speaker of “All Bread” begins by expressing outright distaste for natural processes: “All bread is made of . . .// the bodies of dead animals, the teeth/ and backbones, what is left/ after the ravens.” Soon comes acknowledgment of how human labor on the earth can be consecrated by nature: “good water which is the first/ gift, four hours.” Finally, there is a quiet acceptance of the relationship between humankind and nature: “to know what you devour/ is to consecrate it,/ almost.” Critic Jean Mallinson observes, “ ‘All Bread’records a kind of reconciliation with the muck of the world, the ooze and dung and dirt of it, which is part of the poet’s dispraise of life in other poems.”
Secondary in “All Bread” is a parallel aspect of conflict that also informs Atwood’s vision: the power struggle between the sexes. As with the struggle between humanity and nature, the perspective of the poem evolves from forceful and ironic to calm and accepting. In the course of the poem, the speaker (whose tone and point of view are almost certainly female) makes reference to shared physical work and to the exclusively female pain of childbirth. Female imagery abounds in stanza 2, where the inextricable interweaving of death and life is strongest in the metaphors used to describe the bread baking. “Live burial under a moist cloth,/the row/ of white famine bellies,” while somewhat glibly and gratuitously evoking the ovens of concentration camps, above all suggests the joyful pain of childbirth labor: “swollen and taut in the oven,/ lungfuls of warm breath stopped.” References in stanza 3, where the tone becomes more intimate with the use of the second-person “you,” are to shared sexual love—“. . . the salt taste/ of your hands after nine/ strokes of the axe, the salt/ taste of your mouth.” Finally, in stanza 4, Atwood refers to the shared ceremony that celebrates life’s sacraments such as marriage.
“All Bread” may be viewed as a personal epiphany, or revelation, in which the speaker contemplates, at first with ironic distaste but finally with benign acceptance, the paradoxical truth of existence: that death and life are inextricably entwined, and that human relationships, especially between the sexes, are founded on the same interdependence. In this poem, the sanctity of life, despite its elements of grossness and drudgery, is celebrated.