Margaret Atwood

Start Free Trial

Student Question

How would you psychoanalyze Margaret Atwood's poem "It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers"?

Quick answer:

Margaret Atwood's "It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers" explores the speaker's guilt and helplessness in the face of global atrocities. The poem juxtaposes her mundane actions with horrific events, suggesting a sense of personal responsibility. The speaker feels that even her passive actions contribute to global suffering, highlighting the dissonance between her peaceful life and the world's chaos. This reflects a broader guilt about living comfortably amid widespread tragedy.

Expert Answers

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

Margaret Atwood's "It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers" is an examination of the contrast between the speaker's everyday life and the atrocities reported in newspapers each day. 

Early in the poem, the speaker juxtaposes her innocent quotidian actions as a child with horrific events taking place in the surrounding world. 

While I was building neat
castles in the sandbox,
the hasty pits were
filling with bulldozed corpses

and as I walked to the school
washed and combed, my feet
stepping on the cracks in the cement
detonated red bombs. (1-8)

When the speaker was a child, she built sandcastles and went to school, while in other places, people were dying and bombs were exploding. She also connects those experiences to her own by suggesting that her actions caused the horrific tragedies to occur (lines 6-8).

In the next couple of stanzas, the speaker talks about how circumstances have developed as she has become older and has learned to read. She writes,

Now I am grownup
and literate, and I sit in my chair
as quietly as a fuse

and the jungles are flaming, the under-
brush is charged with soldiers,
the names on the difficult
maps go up in smoke. (9-15)

The oxymoronic phrase "quietly as a fuse" connects to the sentiment in lines 6-8, implying that the speaker's mere existence is potentially dangerous. Meanwhile, elsewhere, "jungles are flaming" as wars rage on.

The next stanza makes the connection between the speaker and tragic current events even clearer:

I am the cause, I am a stockpile of chemical
toys, my body
is a deadly gadget,
I reach out in love, my hands are guns,
my good intentions are completely lethal. (16-20)

The speaker labels herself as "the cause" of the tragedies. Even though she "reach[es] out in love," her "good intentions are completely lethal." This strange juxtaposition of innocent actions and evil outcomes is characterstic of the speaker's style throughout the poem. If you want to psychoanalyze the speaker, you might say she feels guilty that she lives such an ordinary life and carries on each day even though catastrophic events are happening all around the world. 

The speaker continues by writing,

Even my
passive eyes transmute
everything I look at to the pocked
black and white of a war photo,
how
can I stop myself

It is dangerous to read newspapers. (21-27)

She describes looking at a newspaper and being instinctively or unwittingly drawn to war photos. Her eyes may be "passive," not actively looking for evidence of tragedy, but she is drawn to it nonetheless. This is why reading the papers is "dangerous." 

The final stanza elaborates on why newspapers are dangerous:

Each time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter,
speaking of peaceful trees

another village explodes. (28-31)

As the speaker writes "peaceful" poems, "another village explodes." The tragic events happen despite her attempts to work against them through loving and peaceful acts. She again seems to feel like she causes the explosion. The speaker may be projecting her guilt outward. She may feel like her writing about "peaceful trees" shields her from reality; she is also not doing anything active to stop the catastrophes from occurring. Ultimately, the speaker may, like many people who hear about and read about tragedies on a daily basis, that she is lucky to not have experienced those events herself but to also feel guilty that she can live her ordinary life while the world burns around her. 

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