Life Before Man Summary
by Margaret Atwood

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Life Before Man Summary

Margaret Atwood's novel Life Before Man follows three characters who are experiencing life-altering moments of emotional crisis. The novel takes place over the course of two years.

Nate, a lawyer-turned-woodworker, and Elizabeth, a director at the Natural History Museum, are unhappily married. They are in an open marriage, and to some degree, they discuss their extramarital lovers with one another. At the time of the book, Elizabeth is coping with grief following the recent suicide of her lover, Chris. The suicide occurred following Chris and Elizabeth's breakup. Elizabeth is extremely dedicated to her work, in a manner that the book implies is unhealthy. This may be a response to her unhappy childhood.

Lesje, the third main character, is an assistant paleontologist at the same museum where Elizabeth works. Lesje is undergoing a search for meaning regarding her ethnic identity; she is of Ukrainian and Jewish heritage. At the time of the book, Nate is pursuing Lesje as a lover. Nate has recently ended a relationship with his former coworker Martha. His relationship with Lesje becomes more serious than most of his previous extramarital flings. He moves in part-time with Lesje and convinces her to leave her lover, William. William, an environmental researcher, has a brief fling with Elizabeth—a fling which is not very satisfying for her. Lesje wants to raise a family with Nate and secretly stops taking birth control in the hopes of getting pregnant. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Nate plan to get divorced.

The bulk of the novel deals with the internal emotional turbulence of the three main characters. Elizabeth copes with grief over her lover's suicide, trauma from her childhood, and her habit of avoiding her problems by overworking. Nate deals with his own changing attitudes towards commitment and child-rearing. Lesje deals with her aversion to and alienation from other people, her search for meaning in her roots, and a desire to raise children.

Human isolation and loneliness, juxtaposed against the backdrop of the static, extinct dinosaur skeletons of the museum, undergird the action in the book.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Life Before Man is a nineteenth century novel of manners translated into twentieth century life, a detailed description of sexual manners and mores among several modern couples. Where the earlier form would have been essentially satiric, however, Margaret Atwood’s novel is savage and sad.

The novel is divided into five parts; each part contains from eleven to fourteen short chapters of three to four pages, headed by a character and a date and centering on one of the three main characters. The opening chapter in part 1, for example, is titled “Elizabeth, Friday, October 29, 1976,” and the last chapter of part 5 is “Elizabeth, Friday, August 18,1978.” The novel thus covers nearly two years (including two Nate chapters that are flashbacks to 1975 and 1976). Often, two or three chapters cover the same day, or the same events are being described from the perspectives of Elizabeth, Nate, and/or Lesje.

Given this busy and clever structure, the plot of Life Before Man is really quite thin. Chris, Elizabeth’s former lover, has killed himself a week before the novel opens, and Elizabeth is trying to deal with his death: “I don’t know how I should live,” reads the first line; “I live like a peeled snail.” Chris worked in the same museum of natural history where Elizabeth (in special projects) and Lesje (an assistant paleontologist) still work, and Elizabeth ended the relationship some weeks before (apparently because Chris wanted more than a love affair), but her lover’s shotgun blast has struck her as well, at least figuratively, and she is in shock.

At the same time that Elizabeth has been letting Chris go, Nate has been concluding his affair with Martha, a secretary at the legal firm where he once worked, and is casting about for a new lover. He settles on Lesje and, over the course of the novel, courts and seduces her, gets her to...

(The entire section is 1,071 words.)