Margaret Eleanor Atwood, “Peggy”, is a Canadian critic, essayist, lecturer, novelist, and poet. Atwood is also “one of Canada’s major contemporary authors” who has won a multitude of awards, including the Governor General’s Award for The Handmaid’s Tale (Godard Web).
Wilderness Tips, having the short story “Death by Landscape” in 1991, was the winner of the 1992 Trillium Award and the Book of the Year of the Periodical Marketers of Canada (Godard Web).
However, it can clearly be identified that Atwood would not have won all her awards if it were not for the heavy influence from other Canadian writers and poets, namely P.K. “Patty” Page and Susanna Moodie.
This essay is going to make specific connections between Atwood’s “Death by Landscape” with Page’s The Sun and the Moon and Atwood’s perception of Moodie’s personae and life in The Journals of Susanna Moodie.
In addition to the two other Canadian authors, the same connections may be found in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown.”
Also, Coral Ann Howells found three themes as “central to Atwood’s work” which are “gender studies; nationality; and genre” (Widdicombe 285).
However, the main connections I tend to focus on in this essay consist of how through the wilderness and individual’s survival in nature with retrospection all lead to a metamorphosis of the main character.
Susanna Moodie was an English author who moved to present day Ontario, Canada in 1832. Atwood worked on the life and history of Susanna Moodie and produced The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), a book of poetry, which describes the personae of characters having “difficulty accepting the irrational” (Godard Web).
In Atwood’s “Death by Landscape” (1991) the main character, Lois, also has trouble accepting the irrational moment of when her best friend Lucy simply vanished in the forest while in the Canadian wilderness during a camping trip. Susanna Moodie also experienced the overwhelming influence of the Canadian wilderness after moving from England to the upper-parts of Canada.
In addition, the relationship between Atwood and Moodie has “intrigued a number of critics” (Hammill 48). Furthermore, Moodie influenced the Gothic nature found in “Death by Landscape” and “focus on the traumatic experience of a white female in an alien forest setting” (Hammill 54).
Atwood commented in Strange Things about Moodie’s books: “[Moodie] emphasizes hardship and catastrophe… people in her books go mad, commit murder, get lynched” (Atwood in, Hammill 48). Lois can also be representative of one of Moodie’s characters who develop a form of madness from the Canadian landscape.
Lois in “Death by Landscape” secludes herself in her apartment surrounded by landscape paintings, buying them because “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” (Atwood 25).
Lois is haunted by the paintings which hold Lucy’s spirit: “Everyone has to be somewhere, and this is where Lucy is” (Atwood 36).
The connection between Moodie and Atwood is defined by Heather Murray by suggesting that the camp setting in “Death by Landscape” is the “twentieth-century equivalent of Susanna Moodie’s bush cabin” (Hammill 56).
Moodie and Atwood were both experienced with living in the Canadian wilderness; Atwood’s childhood was spent in the wilderness with her father who was an entomologist, and she grew up with pets, like a preying mantis and a cabbage butterfly, which died quickly and she kept in a shoe box and probably both the wilderness and the constant death of the insects led to the Atwood’s Gothic appeal combined with the spine-chilling power of nature (LaMarsh Web).
Finally, Atwood’s Moodie is much like Atwood’s Lucy. Both characters are transformed and become amalgamated into the wilderness.
Moodie did suffer from dementia at the end of her life and Atwood portrays her in poems as a person who “loses her conception of herself as a rational being, she feels herself becoming part of the amoral, non-rational natural environment:
“my skin thickened
with bark and the white hairs of the roots…
and the sun here had stained
me its barbarous colour
”Hands grown stiff, the fingers
brittle as twigs”
(Atwood in, Hammill 51).
In the selection of the poem Moodie is becoming a tree, slowly being transformed into a part of the wilderness which she fears.
In “Death by Landscape” Lois imagines Lucy doing the very same thing, becoming lost, becoming one with nature itself:
“Who knows how many trees there were on the cliff just before Lucy disappeared? Who counted? Maybe there was one more, afterwards” (Atwood 36).
Here Atwood ascertains that Lois believes that Lucy might have vanished into thin air by becoming a tree, much like the poem about Moodie and her fear of the wilderness.
Atwood studied Moodie, wrote about Moodie, and both Atwood and Moodie lived and wrote about the Canadian wild and the female who is transformed by it. However, Moodie is not the only Canadian writer to have influenced Margaret Atwood and the short story “Death by Landscape.”
P.K. “Patty” Page was a Canadian writer, poet, and visual artist who also influenced Atwood. Much like Atwood’s Moodie who transforms into a tree, Page writes of her own experience in the poem “Reflection” which states:
“In the noon of yesterday I saw a tree
pretending it was a woman,
bending over a stream,…
and I bent over the water beside it,…
and I was a tree… ”
(Page in, Djwa 15).
Page likely was inspired by Ezra’s Pound’s poem “A Girl” which is also about a tree-like transformation and Page penciled in the poem’s margin about her own tree-like experience (Djwa 15).
But it can be certain that since “Reflection” was published in July 1939 it was far before Atwood’s writing-time who was born that same year in November.
In addition, Atwood would grow up to work and edit Page’s novel The Sun and the Moon in 1972, which was published before Atwood’s Wilderness Tips in 1991 which holds “Death by Landscape.”
In Page’s novel, there are two main characters which have the same initial K (Karl and Kristin); in “Death by Landscape” the two main characters also share the same initial, albeit the next letter in the alphabet: L (Lois and Lucy) (Djwa 17).
The novella, The Sun and the Moon, also ends much like “Death by Landscape” where the natural landscape consumes the entire focus of the story:
“On the far side… the trees marched, unchecked, right down to the water’s edge” and according to Sandra Djwa, “we as readers incorporate Kristin-as-tree into this landscape” (17).
The metamorphosis Page writes about is much like Atwood’s Moodie and Lucy:
“[Kristin] could hear the wind again, pulling at the trees… And she felt part of it… She knew only an instinctive desire to stay standing… to dig her roots into the earth” (Page in, Djwa 16).
Certainly it can be found that Kristin becoming a part of the landscape at the end of The Sun and the Moon ties closely in with Lucy becoming one more tree at the end of Atwood’s short story “Death by Landscape.”
Just as Moodie influenced Atwood’s work, it can also be seen that Page’s writings played an important role as well.
Moodie and Page both were influences on Atwood’s literary career.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” incorporates some of the similar themes that Atwood does in “Death by Landscape.”
In “Young Goodman Brown” Goodman Brown ventures into the wilderness only to be transformed by his experiences, much like Lois in “Death by Landscape.”
Both stories present nature as a dangerous and fearful place.
“The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds- creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while sometimes the wind tolled like a distant church bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveller, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank from its other horrors” (Hawthorne 645).
A similar feeling can be taken in Atwood’s description of nature in “Death by Landscape”:
“Out on the lake there were two loons, calling to each other in their insane, mournful voices. At the time it did not sound like grief. It was just background” (Atwood 31).
And the unnerving description of Indians:
“Looking back on this, Lois finds it disquieting. She knows too much about Indians: this is why. She knows for instance, that they should not be called Indians, and that they have enough worries without other people taking their names and dressing up as them. It has all been a form of stealing” (Atwood 29).
Both Hawthorne and Atwood inject Indians into the enervating wilderness.
Lastly, both Goodman Brown and Lois exit from the wilderness as changed individuals who have experienced something beyond their own understanding.
It is quite possible that Atwood was also influenced by some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings, just like she was influenced by Moodie and Page.
In sum, Margaret Atwood has been a formidable writer in Canada’s history.
However, this essay has clearly illustrated how other Canadian writers such as Susanna Moodie and P.K. Page have influenced Atwood’s literary career as well as her short fiction in “Death by Landscape.”
Furthermore, Atwood also resembles the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne in his short story “Young Goodman Brown”; all of the above mentioned writers focused on the mystical world of the wild and how that magic changes an individual.
Regardless of the influences on Atwood, any reader can emerge from her work in complete understanding of her unique, artistic prowess at finding new ways to haunt and echo the ages and minds through her writing.
Atwood, Margaret Eleanor. “Death by Landscape.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 7th edition. Eds. Richard Bausch and R.V. Cassill. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 24-36. Print.
Djwa, Sandra. “P.K. Page: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman.” Journal of Canadian Studies 38.1 (2004): 9-22. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 27 July 2010.
Godard, Barbara. “Atwood, Margaret Eleanor.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Web. 27 July 2010.
Hammill, Faye. “‘Death by Nature’: Margaret Atwood and Wilderness Gothic.” Gothic Studies 5.2 (2003): 47-63. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 27 July 2010.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 7th edition. Eds. Richard Bausch and R.V. Cassill. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 639-648. Print.
LaMarsh, Judy. “A Precocious and Creative Child: Margaret Atwood Interview.” The CBC Digital Archives Website. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Interview: Broadcast Date: Nov. 4, 1975. Last Updated: June 2, 2008. Web. 27 July 2010.
[Link: http://archives.cbc.ca/programs/322-1… ]
Widdicombe, Toby. “Margaret Atwood. Second ed.” Utopian Studies 18.2 (2007): 284-288. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 27 July 2010.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers