Death by Landscape

by Margaret Atwood

Start Free Trial

What does Lois find in the landscape paintings in Atwood's "Death by Landscape" that fill her with "wordless unease"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Lois, the narrator of "Death by Landscape," mentions the names of the artists, all Canadians, whose landscapes she has collected over the years. She also describes what they look like without naming any particular picture:

They are pictures of convoluted tree trunks on an island of pink wave-smoothed stone, with more islands behind; of a lake with rough, bright, sparsely wooded cliffs; of a vivid river shore with a tangle of bush and two beached canoes, one red, one gray; of a yellow autumn woods with the ice-blue gleam of a pond half-seen through the interlaced branches.

At first, they mean little to us, but as we learn the story of Lucy's mysterious disappearance during a camp canoe trip, we come to have a greater understanding of what the pictures mean to Lois. To Lois, they grant Lucy a form of immortality, for she imagines as she gazes at the pictures that Lucy, though dead in real life, is living behind the trees and hills of these paintings.

Looking at the some of the work of the artists Lois mentions, I can understand how she could be drawn to them as places "hiding" Lucy. An artist whose work especially resonates with the story's theme, for example, is Canadian Tom Thomson, who, like Lucy, died on a canoe trip in the Canadian wilds, though unlike her, his body was recovered. Such paintings as his Mississagi, 1912, show a wooded shoreline seen from a lake—possibly the same lake on which Lois and Lucy traveled. What makes this painting compelling in light of the story—as are some of those by Arthur Lismer, David Milne, and J. E. H. MacDonald—is that they don't show everything. Thick trees, for example, line the shore in Missisagi, and it is easy to imagine Lois taking a strange comfort in the idea of Lucy lurking behind them. They fill Lois with an "unease" that is at the same time reassuring: she can imagine Lucy looking back at her, and that imagined gaze gives life to Lucy.

The paintings give Lois a sense of comfort that never came from Lucy's unresolved disappearance: in reality a body was never found, and nobody knows what happened to Lucy. The paintings fill in and provide an answer where life drops off—this, Atwood suggests, is the role of art: to fulfill needs that life can't answer, to point beyond its mystery to something deeper. Atwood has written in what is called the ekphrastic genre. Ekphrastic literature is centrally about works or a work of art and how we interact with them. We learn at the end of the story that to Lois:

Every one of them is a picture of Lucy. You can't see her exactly, but she's there, in behind the pink stone island or the one behind that. In the picture of the cliff she is hidden by the clutch of fallen rocks towards the bottom, in the one of the river shore she is crouching beneath the overturned canoe. In the yellow autumn woods she's behind the tree that cannot be seen because of the other trees, over beside the blue sliver of pond; but if you walked into the picture and found the tree, it would be the wrong one, because the right one would be further on.

Everyone has to be somewhere, and this is where Lucy is...

Art provides Lois with a deep solace and sense of connection that life alone cannot provide. Anyone who can lose themselves in looking at a landscape painting by one of Lois's artists might get an inkling of what Lois feels.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial