Death by Landscape

by Margaret Atwood

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Death by Landscape Summary

"Death by Landscape" by Margaret Atwood is a short story about a woman named Lois who recalls a tragedy from her childhood while looking at paintings of landscapes.

  • Lois recalls spending summers at a camp with her friend Lucy. One summer, the girls go on a canoe trip and Lucy disappears.
  • The group searches for her, but she is never found. Lois is questioned by the camp director, and she breaks down in tears.
  • As an adult, Lois looks at landscape paintings and feels that her friend is hiding somewhere in each one, "entirely alive."


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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

From the beginning of the story, Lois is noted to have a disconnect from nature. She "is relieved not to have to worry about the lawn, or about the ivy . . . or the squirrels." She lives in an apartment where the focus is the artwork she's collected. Interestingly, the pictures give her no sense of peace and "fil[l] her with a wordless unease."

The narrative then uses flashback to take the reader back to a young Lois. At this age, she attends camp each summer and befriends Lucy. Lucy is from Chicago and has a fair amount of family wealth; she has a full-time maid (while Lois's family can only afford help a couple of days a week) and lives in a gated lake community.

During their first summer there together, Lois shows Lucy around the camp. Lucy isn't all that impressed but is resolved to make the best of it. The girls write letters throughout the school year, signing their letters LL "with the L's entwined together like the monograms on a towel." When they meet again at camp, they have to readjust to the differences to being together in person, but they always reunite with life updates that haven't been expressed in their letters.

Over the years, Lucy's life changes quite a bit. She learns ballet and then horseback riding. Her mother and father divorce and she acquires a new stepfather. She decides that she doesn't like her stepfather, but she doesn't want to live with her father and his new wife either. She finds her mother kissing a doctor in the driveway. By contrast, Lois's life remains pretty "placid" summer after summer.

When they are fourteen, a group of campers embarks on a weeklong canoe trip. Lucy is "apathetic" about the trip, finally settling in to the idea with "a sigh of endurance." The counselors hold a ceremony the night before sending the campers on their adventure. They are told that they will be gone for "many moons," which Lois realizes is not true, because the length of the journey is only a few days. Still, these words make the water seem "immense and a little frightening."

The girls row steadily all day and camp at night. Lois and Lucy convince the leaders to allow them to sleep alone and outside the tent. Under the stars, Lucy tells Lois that, "it would be nice not to go back . . . to Chicago." The tone is ominous, as Lucy's future seems more and more certain in conjunction with the title.

The next day, the girls row over a "flat calm" lake, skimming along a glassy surface, which seems to set up a false sense of security. They stop to have lunch at Lookout Point, and Lois and Lucy ask to hike up to the lookout while lunch is being prepared. The climb is steep, and the girls are sweating when they reach the top. Lois thinks her friend is "nuts" when Lucy tells her, "It would be quite a dive off here." Lucy reasons that the water has to be deep as she stands precariously near the edge.

Lucy has to use the bathroom before hiking back down, and Lois hands her some toilet paper before stepping back down the trail a bit to give her friend some privacy. At exactly noon, she hears "the shout." In retrospect, as an adult, she recalls that it was not a shout of fear. It was more of a cry of surprise. Lois rushes back to the spot where she left Lucy, and she can't find her. She searches for her desperately, but there is no trace of her friend. She races back down the path and reports her friend's disappearance. After a search, no one can find Lucy, and they leave without her. It takes two days to get back to camp and officially report her missing. The police are called. Dogs are brought in. But because it has rained since her disappearance, they come up empty-handed as well.

Back in the director's office, Lois is questioned about Lucy's disappearance. Cappie asks her leading questions, trying to make Lois acknowledge that she pushed Lucy off the ledge (and thereby releasing the camp itself from any negligent behavior). Lois breaks down into tears—not from guilt but from the realization that the director is trying to manipulate a fourteen-year-old girl. Cappie seems satisfied enough with her emotional response.

Back in the present timeline, the adult Lois feels that she has lived her entire life with "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." She has completely disconnected from nature as a result of this tragedy, avoiding "wild lakes and wild trees and the calls of loons." Even so, she keeps landscape paintings in her apartment that reflect "the same landscape they paddled through, that distant summer."

Because her friend has been swallowed up by nature, Lois can no longer engage with it at all. However, her guilt about the sequence of events that lead to Lucy's death grips her, and she is forever looking for Lucy, feeling that she is hiding somewhere in each of the paintings, "entirely alive."

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