Death by Landscape

by Margaret Atwood

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Death by Landscape Themes

The main themes in "Death by Landscape" are the compulsion to explain the unexplainable and trauma's lifelong effects.

  • The compulsion to explain the unexplainable: Lucy's disappearance sparks Cappie's desperate search for an explanation that might alleviate her feelings of bewilderment and loss.
  • Trauma's lifelong effects: Lois's adult life offers a portrait of unprocessed trauma, haunted as she remains by the specter of Lucy's disappearance.


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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347

The Compulsion to Explain the Unexplainable

Cappie, the head of Camp Manitou, is desperate to find some explanation for Lucy's disappearance after it happens. Lois feels that Cappie wants her, a child, to supply that explanation—or be the explanation. Cappie insists that people sometimes do things without even realizing that they are angry at someone, implying that Lois actually pushed Lucy from a cliff into the water. Lois knows that Cappie needs a reason "for herself," in order to explain the loss of everything she had worked for at the camp. Even though there are no answers to explain Lucy's disappearance, Cappie's discomfort with uncertainty leads her to attempt to find them however she can.

Trauma's Lifelong Effects

Lois is a widow with two grown sons, and yet—decades after the trauma of Lucy's disappearance—she is still grappling with it. She buys painting after painting, even though they fill her with "wordless unease," in an effort to come to grips with this childhood trauma. In fact, when she moves from her home, a priority for her is finding a smaller place that can actually house all of her paintings, despite the trauma they remind her of but never satisfy.

When childhood tragedy is not dealt with well, we continue to try to resolve it, even as adults. Lois feels as though she has spent her whole life never able to truly pay attention to anything. She is always tired and feels as though she's living two lives rather than one: her own actual life and "another, shadowy life" that she would have lived if Lucy had never disappeared. For her, every one of her paintings "is a picture of Lucy." Lois has always felt blamed for Lucy's death, and she had been powerless to deny it satisfactorily when she was a child. She feels that she "had been tried and sentenced," that she has been "condemned for something that was not her fault." Cappie's accusation and the lack of constructive solutions for Lois's trauma and powerlessness still compel her to try to resolve these feelings decades later.

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