Margaret Atwood Long Fiction Analysis
For Margaret Atwood, an unabashed Canadian, literature became a means to cultural and personal self-awareness. “To know ourselves,” she writes in Survival, “we must know our own literature; to know ourselves accurately, we need to know it as part of literature as a whole.” Thus, when she defines Canadian literary concerns she relates her own as well, for Atwood’s fiction grows out of this tradition. In her opinion, Canada’s central reality is the act of survival: Canadian life and culture are decisively shaped by the demands of a harsh environment. Closely related to this defining act of survival, in Atwood’s view, is the Canadian search for territorial identity—or, as literary theorist Northrop Frye put it, “Where is here?”
Atwood’s heroines invariably discover themselves to be emotional refugees, strangers in a territory they can accurately label but one in which they are unable to feel at home. They are alienated not only from their environment but also from language itself; for them, communication becomes a decoding process. To a great degree, their feelings of estrangement extend from a culture that, having reduced everything to products, threatens to consume them. Women are particularly singled out as products, items to be decorated and sold as commodities, though men are threatened as well. Indeed, Canadian identity as a whole is in danger of being engulfed by an acquisitive American culture, though Atwood’s “Americans” symbolize exploitation and often turn out to be Canadian nationals.
Reflective of their time and place, Atwood’s characters are appropriately ambivalent. Dead or dying traditions prevent their return to the past, a past most have rejected. Their present is ephemeral at best, and their future inconceivable. Emotionally maimed, her heroines plumb their conscious and unconscious impressions, searching for a return to feeling, a means of identification with the present.
Atwood often couches their struggle in terms of a journey, which serves as a controlling metaphor for inner explorations: The unnamed heroine of Surfacing returns to the wilderness of Quebec, Lesje Green of Life Before Man wanders through imagined Mesozoic jungles, Rennie Wilford of Bodily Harm flies to the insurgent islands of Ste. Agathe and St. Antoine. By setting contemporary culture in relief, these primitive sites define the difference between nature and culture and allow Atwood’s heroines to gain new perspectives on their own realities. They can see people and places in relation to each other, not as isolated entities. Ultimately, however, this resolves little, for Atwood’s novels end on a tenuous note. Although her heroines come to terms with themselves, they remain estranged.
Supporting her characters’ ambivalence is Atwood’s versatile narrative technique. Her astringent prose reflects their emotional numbness; its ironic restraint reveals their wariness. Frequent contradictions suggest not only the complexity of her characters but also the antagonistic times they must survive. By skillful juxtaposition of past and present through the use of flashbacks, Atwood evokes compelling fictional landscapes that ironically comment on the untenable state of modern men and women. Still, there remains some hope, for her characters survive with increased understanding of their world. Despite everything, life does go on.
The first of Atwood’s novels to arouse critical praise and commentary, Surfacing explores new facets of the bildungsroman. What might have been a conventional novel of self-discovery develops into a resonant search for self-recovery imbued with mythic overtones and made accessible through Atwood’s skillful use of symbol and ritual. At the same time, Atwood undercuts the romantic literary conventions of ultimate self-realization as a plausible conclusion. To accept the heroine’s final emergence as an end in itself is to misread this suggestively ironic novel.
The unnamed heroine of Surfacing ,...
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