Death by Landscape

by Margaret Atwood

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The primary theme in this short story is loneliness. Despite her affluence and family, the protagonist, Lois, finds herself isolated, left to her own mournful thoughts about a single past event. While she has forgotten the face of her deceased husband and thinks of her children with little obvious emotion, her memories of her friend Lucy and her unfortunate demise are crystal clear, suggesting the obsessive nature of her reflections on the incident. This obsession is manifest physically as well as emotionally in the landscape paintings that Lois dislikes—yet which she hangs up in her apartment nonetheless.

Lois's initial fear of the wilderness is borne out by her experiences there with Lucy. She experiences a brief moment of joy and comfort in the wilderness, an experience represented by her physically ascending to a high place with her friend. The sheer cliff over which Lucy presumably tumbles constitutes a point at which Lois's short spell of innocence and joy is brought to an end.

The fact that her friend was never found means that Lois has no closure, that she is left to wonder and to regret for an incident that she is somewhat still in the dark about. This sense of survivor's guilt is furthered for Lois by Cappie's accusation that she has pushed her friend off the cliff. Whether she does or does not is irrelevant. Simply in being accused, Lois feels guilt, conscious as she is that she is the only person in a position to have prevented Lucy’s decision to go and urinate off the cliff.

Years later, while sitting in her apartment, she can see the lake outside the window, a vast and mysterious body of water representative of the wilderness as an idea. While she can see the lake, she cannot hear the wind, as the window is closed. This metaphor symbolizes the way in which the wilderness, while physically distant from Lois's present life, still occupies her mind.

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