Death by Landscape

by Margaret Atwood

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Looking at them fills her with a wordless unease. Despite the fact that there are no people in them or even animals, it's as if there is something, or someone, looking back out.

The paintings Lois has hung up in her apartment provide a masochistic gratification for her. She fears the wilderness as an idea due to the danger it represents, yet she looks into the paintings nonetheless, perhaps in search of answers concerning her friend Lucy, whom the wilderness has claimed and whose memory still torments Lois.

She hears something, almost hears it: a shout of recognition, or of joy.

This quote hints at the supernatural in a work which is otherwise concerned with the mundane. The reader is left to wonder whether or not, while looking into her paintings, Lois has indeed heard the voice of her deceased friend—or whether what she “hears” is in fact the symptom of a mind still tormented by guilt.

“You go on big water,” says Cappie. This is her idea—all their ideas—of how Indians talk. “You go where no man has ever trod. You go many moons.”

Here, the romantic notion of the wilderness is represented in the figure of Cappie, a woman whose Native American heritage renders her, in the eyes of Lois and the other girls, as a human manifestation of the wilderness. This idea of wildness, adventure and going where nobody has yet gone is what Lois is both enticed and intimidated by. The emptiness of the paintings she hangs on her walls years later, moreover, indicates that this oppositional relationship to the wilderness persists in her mind.

Lucy did not care about things she didn’t know, whereas Lois did.

This comparison between the two girls achieves two purposes. First of all, it reflects how, for Lois, the nature of the wilderness as unknown exercises an attraction even as its danger simultaneously exercises a repulsion. Where Lucy’s unwillingness to invest herself in the wilderness leads to her being undone by it, Lois survives because she understands and responds on a subconscious level to the environment in which she finds herself. The quote also suggests that, out of the two girls, Lois is less prepared to deal with the unexplained death of her friend. Without closure, she is doomed to a life of uncertainty and remorse.

. . . she has a wide view of Lake Ontario, with its skin of wrinkled blue-gray light, and of the willows of Toronto Island shaken by a wind that is silent at this distance and on this side of the glass.

In its depth, mystery, and beauty, the lake represents Lois’s memory of the wilderness as something fascinating yet unknowable. Its description as having “skin of wrinkled blue” implies age—and, perhaps, how Lois’s painful memories have grown old with her.

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