Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Margaret Atwood / Two-Headed Woman

Margaret Atwood

By Constance Classen and David Howes



"Canada [is] a state of mind."

– Margaret Atwood, Survival

Writing Double

Of all the Canadian icons discussed here, Margaret Atwood (b. 1939) most obviously expresses the duality of the Canadian constitution in her work. Atwood’s strong literary predilection for fractured characters and themes has been commented on by a long list of scholars in articles and books with titles like "The Two Faces of the Mirror" (Bromberg 1988), Violent Duality (Grace 1980), and In Search of the Split Subject (Mycak 1996). Indeed Atwood’s concern with double identities is also present in the titles of some of her own works, such as Double Persephone (1961), Two-Headed Poems (1978a) and Alias Grace (1996). Images of doubling are employed within a variety of contexts in Atwood’s work, and may be interpreted according to a range of personal and social dualisms.

Atwood’s interest in duality is most prominently expressed through her frequent references to mirrors and other reflecting surfaces – notably eyes. To give just a few examples, the speaker in "The Circle Game" states:

Being with you
here, in this room
is like groping through a mirror….
You refuse to be
(and I)
an exact reflection, yet
will not walk from the glass,
be separate (Atwood 1966: 36).

In the poem "Tricks With Mirrors" it is the speaker who is a mirror: "You are suspended in me/ beautiful and frozen" (Atwood 1974: 26). At the moment of her engagement, Marian in The Edible Woman sees herself "small and oval, mirrored in [her fiancé’s] eyes" (Atwood 1978b: 80). Similarly, in Cat’s Eye the protagonist watches her friend putting on sunglasses and notes "There I am in her mirror eyes, in duplicate and monochrome, and a great deal smaller than life-size" (Atwood 1988: 303). At the same time, the protagonist is afraid that she’ll "look into the bathroom mirror and see the face of another girl" (Atwood 1988: 212).

As indicated by the above references, Atwood’s dualism is also expressed through a series of man – woman, and sometimes woman – woman, relationships. Atwood’s typical pair have a strong sense of being doubles of each other, yet at the same time feel trapped by and alienated from each other, raising the question of whether to be someone else’s double is to lose oneself. Nor is the individual a whole being in Atwood’s imaginary, she – it is usually a she – is always splitting into two or more selves. In "Reflections on Mirror Images" Nora Foster Stovel notes that "Atwood’s novels all centre on the quest for identity, as each Janus-headed heroine struggles to integrate her splintered personae" (Stovel 1986: 50). The title character of Double Persephone leads alternate lives, spending winter underground and summer above ground (Atwood 1961). In a well-known scene from The Edible Woman Marian escapes from her engagement by offering her fiancé a double of herself – a cake she has made in the shape of a woman (with reflecting silver balls for eyes) (Atwood 1978b). In Surfacing the protagonist reveals that she has created a fictional past for herself (Atwood 1972a). In Lady Oracle, the protagonist creates a fictional future for herself, changing her name and reinventing herself as an attractive, popular novelist, and then staging her death and creating yet another self-identity (Atwood 1976). In Alias Grace, Grace Marks is discovered to have an alternate self-identity through hypnosis. A mesmerist who treats Grace remarks: "Nature sometimes produces two heads on one body… Then why not two persons, as it were, in one brain?" (Atwood 1996: 486).

Atwood’s dualism has usually been explained as expressing the divided self in modernity (and particularly postmodernity), as exemplifying the position of woman as "other" in Western culture, or as reflecting the cultural and geographical divisions of the Canadian nation. While the first two interpretations have been amply treated in recent literature (see, for example, the bibliography to In Search of the Split Subject, Mycak, 1996), the last has more often been mentioned in passing, without being explored in any depth. I would argue here that these different bases for interpretation are not mutually exclusive, and are, in fact, interconnected. Thus that Atwood’s protagonists often express a divided personal and female constitution does not mean that they are not, at the same time, expressions of a divided Canadian constitution, or of Canada’s self-conscious relationship to the United States. In one interview she gave, for example, Atwood challenged the interviewer’s assumption that a certain poem of hers ("Backdrop adresses cowboy") was necessarily about women:

The poem is about Canada. What is being desecrated may in fact be female, but it’s also a particular place…. It’s an actual border between one place and another as well as being a metaphor. So it isn’t just about women (Ingersoll 1990: 102).

From Atwood’s perspective, Canada has traditionally occupied, and internalized, the position of the female in relation to the dominant, male land to the south (Atwood 1982: 389), and so the figure of the female is well suited to represent the Canadian character. As Rosemary Sullivan writes in her biography of Atwood, within Canada "national identity and gender were both predicated on second-class status" (Sullivan 1998: 128).

In fact, in many of Atwood’s poems and stories, the context for the exploration of dualism and borders subtly shifts back and forth from the personal or the interpersonal to the national (Hutcheon 1988). Furthermore, Atwood’s statements on Canadian cultural identity can be seen as paralleling and informing the apparently more personal and feminine expressions of identity in her poems and stories. In an essay on "Canadian American Relations", for instance, Atwood says that Canadians had become "addicted to the one-way mirror of the Canadian-American border – we can see you, you can’t see us – and had neglected that other mirror, their own culture" (Atwood 1982: 385). Now consider this statement in the light of the following lines from Atwood’s "Tricks With Mirrors":

There is more to a mirror
than you looking at
your full-length body
flawless but reversed,
there is more than this dead blue
oblong eye turned outwards to you.
Think about the frame.
The frame is carved, it is important,
it exists, it does not reflect you….
[it has] reflections of its own (Atwood 1974: 25).

The present chapter is not an in-depth investigation of how the Canadian identity is represented in Margaret Atwood’s writings, but rather it provides a guide for the exploration of how different aspects of Margaret Atwood’s work and life can be interpreted as expressing and reflecting the Canadian concern with dualisms, boundaries and self-other definition. Or, to put this exercise in more Atwoodian terms, it offers "wilderness tips" for negotiating a Canadian course through part of the vast Atwood forest. The following sections first look at a selection of Margaret Atwood’s writings, then at her life story, and concludes by examining how Atwood relates to the other Canadians discussed in this book.

Gateway to the North

The poetic work by Margaret Atwood which most directly explores the nature of the Canadian identity in conjunction with the protagonist’s personal identity, is her collection of poems entitled The Journals of Susanna Moodie. Susanna Moodie was an English immigrant to Canada in the mid-nineteenth century who wrote movingly of her experience of pioneer life in the Canadian bush. In The Journals Atwood fictionalizes Susanna Moodie’s history in order to express her own ideas about the transformation of an English gentlewoman into a Canadian pioneer and about the Canadian experience in general. Throughout the book, which begins with Mrs. Moodie’s arrival in Canada and ends with her after-death visit to modern Toronto, the focus is on issues of borderlines, double identities, and the Canadian wilderness as both other and one.

In the first poem of the collection, "Disembarking at Quebec", Susanna Moodie notes that "The moving water will not show me/ my reflection " (Atwood 1970: 11). As a new immigrant to Canada, she has not yet acquired that double identity particular to the pioneer experience. Nor is she ready to acquire it: "I refuse to look in the mirror", she states (Atwood 1970: 13). Yet she has already crossed the border into the new land and she realizes that there is no maintaining her old cultural and psychological integrity.

Once "settled" in the bush, Moodie realizes that her old identity has started to fracture. While her English husband and his neighbours continue to "deny the ground they stand on", she finds herself "broken/ in upon by branches, roots, tendrils…" (Atwood 1970: 16-17). Soon Moodie wonders, as her husband walks out into the bush every day, what new double identity he will acquire, and what she herself will be when he returns: "I can’t think/ what he will see/ when he opens the door" (Atwood 1970: 20). When Atwood’s Moodie is at last able to look in a mirror she finds that the old "heirloom face" she came with has crumbled to reveal another face "thickened with bark" and "stained" by a "barbarous" sun (Atwood 1970: 24).

First Susanna Moodie feels that she is being invaded by the earth and trees of the Canadian bush, then she feels that the animals have started to enter her being:

In time the animals
arrived to inhabit me,
first one
by one…
having marked new boundaries
returning (Atwood 1970: 26).

When she arrived in Canada, Moodie had a premonition that she needed "wolf’s eyes to see/ the truth" of her new country (Atwood 1970: 13). Now, after years in the bush, she feels the eyes of animals "glowing out from inside me" (Atwood 1970: 27). She is frightened by this transition, and before it is complete, her husband tells her that they are leaving the bush. Susanna Moodie remarks wistfully: "There was something [the animals] almost taught me/ I came away not having learned" (Atwood 1970: 27).

Moodie cannot now undo the transformation within her, however. The children she has lost during her time in the bush and whom she has "planted… in this country/ like a flag" (Atwood 1970: 31), have become part of the land from which she cannot disentangle herself:

Everywhere I walk, along
the overgrowing paths…
they catch at my heels with their fingers
(Atwood 1970: 41).

Susanna Moodie’s double identity has been established: "Two voices" she says "took turns using my eyes". "One had manners" and knew of such things as watercolours and "uplifting verse". "The other voice/ had other knowledge", of life in the bush with all its brutal realities, pains and joys (Atwood 1970: 42). In an after-death "thought from underground" Moodie explains that she felt herself "split apart" by "this country", both hating it and loving it: "my mind saw double" (Atwood 1970: 54).

Susanna Moodie’s life presents a series of alternations between "civilization" and "wilderness". However, even when she returns from the bush to civilization (or at least to such civilization as the Canada of her day can offer) when she sits "on a stuffed sofa" in a "fringed parlour", she cannot leave the wilderness behind, and dreams of prowling "in crystal darkness/ among the stalactite roots" (Atwood 1970: 47-49). Nor, in her view, is anyone – even the most entrenched Toronto urbanite – safe from one day being displaced by the forest, as she has been. In Moodie’s after-death visit to modern Toronto, she remarks of a fellow passenger on a bus:

Turn, look down:
there is no city;
this is the centre of a forest
your place is empty
(Atwood 1970: 61)

In the epilogue to The Journals of Susanna Moodie Margaret Atwood explains that she chose to write about Susanna Moodie because her personality reflects particularly Canadian "obsessions". Atwood finds in Susanna Moodie a sufferer from Canada’s "national mental illness" – paranoid schizophrenia:

Mrs. Moodie is divided down the middle: she praises the Canadian landscape but accuses it of destroying her; she dislikes the people already in Canada but finds in people her only refuge from the land itself; she preaches progress and the march of civilization while brooding elegaically upon the destruction of the wilderness… (Atwood 1970: 62).

Although in the late twentieth-century the pioneer encounter with the wilderness is foreign to most Canadians, Atwood imagines that, due to the vastness of the country, Canadians still have a similar uneasiness about Canada’s unknown regions, and still feel that to live in Canada is to live "a violent duality" (Atwood 1970: 62). At the end of her life, according to Atwood, "Mrs. Moodie finally accepts the [double] reality of the country she is in, and… accepts also the inescapable doubleness of her own vision" (Atwood 1970: 63) – and of her voice. For, as Atwood has noted: "There is not one Canadian voice. There are various voices" (Ingersoll 1990: 199).

While The Journals of Susanna Moodie deals with the foundations of the Canadian identity in the pioneer experience, a number of poems in other Atwood collections explore the modern Canadian experience. The title poem of Two-Headed Poems depicts Canadians as Siamese twins who, "like all Siamese twins… dream of separation" (Atwood 1978a: 59). It is not only the different regions and cultures within the country who together form Siamese twins, however, it is the individual Canadian who is doubled within herself and himself – a unity of you and I. Thus "our leader" (i.e. the federal prime minister), like Susanna Moodie, is not a singular figure, but rather "has two voices, therefore two heads". "No wonder", writes Atwood, that

our leader scuttles
                   …. reflects
light like a mirror,
splits our faces
(Atwood 1978: 69)

However, Atwood concludes, there is no reason to complain as "He is ours and us,/ we made him" (Atwood 1978: 69).

Canadians, as Atwood points out, also find themselves uncomfortably and seemingly inseparably attached to the United States. "They" are the noisy neigbours who invite us into their backyards, while "we", fearful of losing our borderlines and of the break-down of our own fragile internal structures, worry that "everything/ in the place is falling south" (Atwood 1978: 60, 63). Atwood similarly writes in "Solstice Poem" that our

is crumbling, the nation
splits like an iceberg, factions
shouting Good riddance from the floes
as they all melt south (Atwood 1978: 82)

According to Atwood, the opposite of being a Canadian Siamese twin is to be incorporated – melted – into the American social system.

Americans, in Atwood’s view, entice or compel others to enter their "circle game", to participate in an apparently happy "unity of we". However, the circle is not a happy image for Atwood, who remembers a Sunday School depiction of children from around the world dancing in a circle as insidious missionary propaganda (Sullivan 1998: 48). In the title poem of The Circle Game the image of children dancing in a circle represents a sinister suppression of individual identity and a disregard for what might be going on outside the circle. In Atwood’s poem "Backdrop addresses cowboy" it becomes clear that the American circle is a lasso. The American is a "starspangled cowboy", "innocent as a bathtub/ full of bullets" (Atwood 1968: 50). "[W]hat about the I", Atwood asks, "confronting you on that border/ you are always trying to cross?" (Atwood 1968: 51). Canada may seem like no more than another "backdrop" for the cowboy, but Atwood expresses the hope that, precisely because of its receding distances, its apparently negative space, Canada will be "the thing you can never lasso", will never be incorporated into the American circle (Atwood 1968: 51). This is why, in her writings, we find Atwood constantly exploring the possibilities of Canadian bicentrism as an alternative to American concentrism.

Many of the themes discussed in the above paragraphs are brought together in Margaret Atwood’s novel Surfacing. The story concerns an English-Canadian woman’s search for her father who has gone missing from his cabin in the Quebec bush. At the same time the woman is presented as trying to come to terms with a failed marriage and the loss of a child she has left with her ex-husband. The protagonist is accompanied on her journey by a couple, Anna and David, and by her boyfriend, the "shaggy and blunt-snouted" Joe.

The novel is structured around a series of oppositions: Wilderness/Civilization; Canadian/ American; French/English; Indian/White; Woman/Man. Many of these oppositions are signalled at the start of the novel by the various roadside signs and symbols the protagonist encounters on her way "home" into the bush. The signs reading "Gateway to the North" as one leaves civilization behind; the sign reading "Bienvenue" when one enters Quebec, a stuffed moose dressed up in "a striped jersey and a baseball cap, waving an American flag" at a gas station; "Québec libre" painted on a cliffside (Atwood 1972a: 9-15).

"This is border country" the protagonist notes, as she wonders whether she would have received better attention as an American tourist than she did as an English Canadian trying to speak French at a Quebec store (Atwood 1972a: 26). As border country, it is a place where opposites meet and come into conflict with each other. For the protagonist it is also both "home ground and "foreign territory", as she notes when she crosses the border into Quebec. Home ground because as a child she spent half of every year here in the bush with her entymologist father; foreign territory because it is the bush, it is Quebec, and it is a place she feels she has left behind with her childhood.

The French/English opposition is indicated in the novel by the inability of the protagonist, and of her mother before her, to communicate with their French-speaking neighbours in Quebec. The narrator recalls that, because of their difficulty in making themselves understood, her mother and "Madame" used to raise their voices "as though talking to a deaf person" (Atwood 1972a: 21). Atwood would later use this image in "Two-Headed Poems" where she says of the discussions between Canada’s "two heads": "This is not a debate/ but a duet/ with two deaf singers" (Atwood 1978: 75).

A more prominent dualism in Surfacing, however, is that of Canadian/American. The protagonist sees Americans as a "disease spreading up from the south", blighting the Canadian landscape with their materialist, predatory values. (Atwood 1972a: 7). Her travelling companion David is an ardent Canadian nationalist, for whom the Americans are "bloody, fascist pig Yanks", threatening to invade, brutalize and dominate Canada (Atwood 1972a: 9).

The subordinate, victim position of Canadians in relation to the conquering Americans in the novel is closely related to the subordinate, victim position of women in relation to men, as well as to the subordinate, victim position of the wilderness in relation to humans. This is brought out most clearly when David says that a "split beaver" would make an appropriate national emblem for Canada, as well as being a symbol for a woman (Atwood 1972a: 119). Ironically, however, while David decries the American domination of Canada (probably because he finds himself, as a Canadian, turned into an "effeminate" victim), he celebrates the male domination of women and the human domination of the wilderness, both of which latter excite and tantalize him. For the narrator all three dominations are repellent. She is digusted by the bodies of animals mutilated by hunters she encounters in the bush. She is disgusted by the insenstive treatment Anna receives at the hands of David. She is disgusted by the overbearing presence of the Americans who appear on the scene. Indeed, "American", for the narrator, ultimately means someone with a particular set of characteristics, because Americans, like "body snatchers", can take over your brain without you even knowing you have changed your identity (Atwood 1972a: 129). It is not really surprising to her, therefore, when two hunters she thought were American turn out to be Canadian. They are "American" inside.

The most important "other" in Surfacing is the wilderness. The sign "Gateway to the North" which appears at the start of the novel is an Atwoodian signal that the protagonist is about to undergo a transformational experience, is about to be opened up and occupied by the wilderness. Other signals occur throughout the novel in images of echoes and reflections. The protagonist is ripe for such opening up because she is fractured to begin with. At the beginning of the novel her companion Anna asks her if she has a twin, because some of the lines on her hand are double (Atwood 1972a: 8). Later the protagonist recalls being cut in two as part of a magician’s "trick with mirrors". "Only with me", she says enigmatically, "there had been an accident and I came apart" (Atwood 1972a: 108). What she means here is that she has become disconnected from her childhood, important parts of which she has literally forgotten, through the adolescent process of becoming "civilized", fitting herself into what seemed an appropriate, if alien, cultural role.

In Surfacing the transformation of the protagonist begins when she discovers that her father has been making a record of local Indian pictographs. The pictographs, with their animal/human forms, suggest to her the possibility of shape-shifting. She searches for these shape-shifting pictographs during a solitary swim, while watching her own shape changing in the water, and encounters instead her father’s corpse. After this traumatic experience the protagonist finds herself finally able to face the fact that she has made up a past for herself, that her "child" was aborted before birth, and that her "husband" was a married lover with children of his own (Atwood 1972a: 101, 141-144).

The protagonist, who feels "plant-animal" filaments spreading inside her body, is now ready to begin her journey into the wilderness, into the "sacred places" of the Indians, into her own self-identity. "I no longer have a name", she says, "I tried for all those years to be civilized but I’m not and I’m through pretending" (Atwood 1972a: 168). Before she sets out into the bush, she turns the cabin mirror to the wall, turning away from her old, entrapping, reflection. The discarding of her old identity is accomplished when she swims in the lake and leaves her "false body", represented by her clothes, floating on the water. Naked, she makes herself a lair of leaves and branches and feeds on wild plants. When she goes back to the cabin and turns the mirror around she sees a new woman, face "dirt-caked and streaked", hair "stuck with leaves and twigs", a "natural woman" (Atwood 1972a: 178, 190).

As she puts back on the trappings of civilization the protagonist assures herself that she will no longer be a victim. She feels strong within her new authentic, but still dual, identity as she imagines within herself the new life of the child she has conceived with Joe. Now is the point when a dialogue will have to begin between herself and Joe in place of the old pact of silence, a dialogue which "will probably fail", but which has to be attempted (Atwood 1972a: 191-192).

The protagonist of Surfacing, it will have been noted, has much in common with the protagonist of The Journals of Susanna Moodie. In both cases the characters find themselves penetrated by the wilderness, and it is only after this penetration occurs that they can feel at home, whether within themselves or within their country. The narrator of Surfacing differs from Susanna Moodie, however, in that she is born Canadian. The bush is part of her childhood experience from which she has moved away and which she therefore has to rediscover. Through her journey in search of her own identity, in fact, the narrator is presented as mirroring Canada’s search for its self-identity. The childhood in which the narrator moves between city and bush can be seen as representing the pioneer experience. The youth in which the narrator forgets her childhood experiences and models herself instead on an alien cultural image represents Canada’s attempt to deny its wilderness and model itself after foreign civilizations. As an adult the narrator, like Canada, begins to become aware of and feel uncomfortable with the false identity she has created for herself. Both go in search of their roots, of their ancestors (symbolized for the narrator by her missing father). An authentic identity emerges for the narrator and for Canada when the cumbersome "clothing" of the old, false identity is left behind, and the wilderness, with all its demands for self-reliance and its potential for self-realization, is allowed to penetrate and recreate their consciousness. Native culture – the Indian pictographs – serves to direct the protagonist and Canadians on this journey, for Indians, as Atwood has noted elsewhere, are the mythological ancestors of Canadians and fundamental sources of "authenticity" (Atwood 1972b: 103).

Once this new identity is discovered the narrator is ready to direct herself outwards and establish new relationships with the rest of the world, just as Canada should divest itself of its former identity as a dependent colony and assume a full role in world affairs. At the end of the book the narrator is prepared to turn the uneasy truce she maintains with her boyfriend into a real relationship through dialogue, a dialogue which can produce new life. Through the overlapping of images which occurs in the book, this development also signifies the need for the full range of binary opposites introduced along the way to enter into dialogue with each other; beginning, perhaps, with the French and English Canadians who have so much trouble communicating with each other at the start of the book.

Mirroring Canada

That a work of art is an expression not only of an artist’s imagination, but of a country’s cultural imagination is Margaret Atwood’s thesis in her study of Canadian literature, Survival. In that work she states that a work of art is a mirror:

The reader looks at the mirror and sees not the writer but himself; and behind his image in the foreground, a reflection of the world he lives in. If a country or a culture lacks such mirrors it has no way of knowing what it looks like (Atwood 1972b: 15-16).

In Canada, says Atwood, we are so culturally dependent on foreign works of art that when we look in the artistic mirror we see not ourselves, but other peoples. Yet we imagine that the reflections we see must or should be ours. If one examines Canadian literature with the goal of discovering the Canadian ethos, Atwood writes, one will find "key patterns" which are distinctive to the field and which constitute "a reflection of the national habit of mind" (Atwood 1972b: 13).

Atwood holds, however, that it is not productive to examine Canadian literature in isolation from other national literatures. "We" can arrive at an understanding of our own cultural identity best if we explore it comparatively. Nothing better for this purpose than to define ourselves in contradistinction to "our neighbours to the south." According to Atwood, "every country or culture has a single unifying and informing symbol at its core" (Atwood 1972b: 31). Atwood holds that while the key Canadian symbol is "survival", both cultural and physical, that of the United States is the "frontier", with frontier signifying both the potential for ever-expanding one’s borders through conquest and the promise of a goldern land where one can establish a utopia. While in American (and British) literature the exciting world of adventure and danger is customarily a fantasy land from which the victorious hero returns to the safe, everyday world, in Canadian literature, writes Atwood, "the world of danger [is] the same as the real world" (Atwood 1972b: 30). This makes the Canadian a much more wary person than the American – when continually faced with so many real threats, it suffices just to survive.

In Survival Atwood outlines various victim positions which she holds have traditionally been part of the Canadian identity. The position that she finds most productive, however, is that of "creative non-victim", a position from which ex-victims can come to terms with their own experience and, instead of expending their energy in disguising or lamenting their victimhood, can engage in creative activity (Atwood 1972b: 138-139). This is the position the protagonist of Surfacing reaches at the end of the book.

Survival was harshly criticized when it came out for being too simplistic and exclusive in its categorization of the Canadian mind (a criticism which may also be made of the present book). Yet, as Dennis Lee has written, Atwood’s thesis "made controversy over the nature of `the Canadian imagination’ a legitimate and exciting pastime for a great many people, for a spell at least" (cited in Rosenberg 1984: 135). Ironically, while critics protested the reification of Canadian culture which they saw occurring in Survival, the fame/notoriety of the book ended up reifying Atwood herself as a Canadian cultural icon. Atwood would explain it this way: "[When] what you happen to be saying coincides with what is going on in society; then you become a thing and this is what seems to have happened to me" (cited by Cooke 1988: 215).

"We’re Home"

The concern with double lives and border lines expressed in Atwood’s work is an important part of the author’s own identity. Atwood’s father, Carl Atwood, was an entymologist who carried out long periods of research at remote forest stations. As a child Atwood spent half of every year with her family in the bush, returning to town only for the winter. In a brief bio Atwood wrote of herself:

I was born in the Ottawa General Hospital… in 1939. Six months later I was backpacked into the Quebec bush. I grew up in and out of the bush, in and out of Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. I did not attend a full year of school until I was in grade eight. This was a definite advantage (Ingersoll 1990: 72).

The alternation of habitats created in Atwood a sense of leading two lives – that of a forest dweller in the bush, and that of a school girl in town. When the family returned every fall from the forest to the city, the young girl was particularly impressed by how, in the city, her mother put on "a whole other identity than the one she wore in the north woods".

I suppose I got from that the idea that the thing wasn’t set, wasn’t determined, you could rearrange yourself, you could change your presentation. Nor did it have anything particularly life-threatening to do with your essence. You could do several things, be several things, have several appearances and remain the same person" (cited in Sullivan, 1998: 37)

One of the ways in which Atwood manifested her two identities was in her dual interest in the ways of nature and the arts of civilization. For example, for one school project, Margaret wrote a detailed essay on animal behaviour, for another (Home Economics) project, she wrote an operetta about synthetic fabrics (Sullivan 1998: 49, 68-9).

As a result of her months in the bush, Atwood acquired an impressive knowledge of woodlore, which she supplemented by reading extensively on the subject. One of her favourite books as a child was Ellsworth Jaeger’s Wildwood Wisdom, a five-hundred page guide to survival in the wilderness. (Playing on Jaeger’s book, Atwood would later title a short story "Wilderness Tips".) While in the bush Margaret tried to apply the "wildwood wisdom" acquired from Jaeger, identifying animal tracks, making pots from river clay and eating puffballs and Indian cucumbers (Sullivan 1998: 49-50) This was not just a game for Atwood, for she knew that wilderness survival would be a real issue if she were to get lost in the bush, and the bush, she wrote, was "a place you could find yourself lost in as easy as pie" (Atwood 1997: 7). With the "wilderness wisdom" acquired from Jaeger and her own experience, however, the bush became for Atwood a place where "you can feel comfortable" (Atwood 1997: 7).

Atwood recalls that when approaching the bush in the family’s annual trek north, her parents would shout "We’re almost home now" (Atwood 1997: 7). (Here the question arises, if we’re home now, where were we before?) Surely, one might think, the vast Canadian forest would be the antithesis of a home. Yet the northern woods which seemed so foreign and inhospitable to most urban Canadians, was indeed for Margaret Atwood another kind of home, another way to belong. This is the overlapping of "homeground" and "foreign territory" experienced by the protagonist of Surfacing.

If one aspect of Margaret Atwood’s double identity resulted from her two worlds of forest and town, another aspect came from her delight in storytelling, from the twin worlds of real and imaginary life. The author’s mother recalled little Margaret exclaiming one time while she was being dressed, "Hurry, Mummy. I’m telling myself a story and I can’t wait to find out how it turns out" (Sullivan 1998: 34). In this anecdote we see intimations of the self split by fictional recreations which would become so important a theme in Atwood’s work. When she became a writer Atwood would retain her "split personality" by using "Margaret" as a professional first name and keeping "Peggy" as her name for friends and family (Cooke 1998: 20).

Atwood’s vocation as a writer would collide with her presumed vocation as a female to create another dichotomy, that of artist/woman. If Atwood was impressed by her mother’s ability to assume different identities, she was also impressed by the story of a brilliant aunt who gave up the chance to do graduate work at Oxford University in order to marry and have children. That a woman couldn’t or shouldn’t attempt both was further impressed on Atwood by the film The Red Shoes in which a woman who tries to be both a dancer and a wife ends up killing herself (Sullivan 1998: 3). She would later write:

I feared rejection as a lady writer, which everyone knew was about as bad as a lady painter; and I was convinced I would never get married. The biographies of women authors were very clear: you could write and be classified as neurotic or you could get married and be fulfilled (cited by Sullivan 1998: 92).

Despite the social classification of "lady writers" as unstable and unfulfilled, this seemed a more attractive identity for Atwood than being married and fulfilled, which "sounded very dull" (Sullivan 1998: 92). After all if one were fulfilled, whole, how could one continue to lead a double life?

Another apparent contradiction in identities that Margaret Atwood would embody due to her vocation as writer was that of being a Canadian and a writer. While a student in English literature at the University of Toronto, Atwood was struck by the lack of Canadian literature on the agenda. There was Canadian literature, she discovered, but it was ignored, almost as an embarassing aberration, something which should not and could not really be. The difficulty stemmed from the fact that Canada apparently had no national culture, and without a national culture, how could one hope to have a national literature? The result, if attempted, would surely be pitiful, like an attempt to create an integrated and dynamic Canadian identity out of spruce beer, beavers, mounties and snow (see Ingersoll 1990: 194). To choose to be a Canadian writer, therefore, to want to write a great Canadian novel – as Margaret Atwood did – was to commit oneself to a life of sad illusions and paradoxes.

It was not just being a Canadian writer which seemed a contradiction of identities, it was being a Canadian. In Margaret Atwood’s youth English Canadians dealt with the dualism – English/French, White/Native and so on – of Canadian society by doing as much as possible to deny its existence. As Atwood’s school texts assured her, Canada was white and British (see further Francis 1997). Atwood knew from her own childhood experiences in Quebec and in the bush that there were people in Canada who were not British or white. These anomalies, however, could apparently be dismissed as Canada-Britain’s wayward, "adopted" children, fortunate to have come under the Empire’s maternal wing, but too immature to have any role or voice of their own.

Atwood recalled her Canadian history book in highschool being

about who grew wheat and how happy we were with the parliamentary system. Not much, in those days, about possible French-speaking malcontents or the fact that Indians might have come out the losers in a few forced land deals (cited by Sullivan 1998: 60).

Atwood would disassemble such false and totalitarian images of unity and contentment in her collection of poems, You Are Happy. As Atwood reveals in that book, you are not happy at all, you are just denying your suffering.

For an English-Canadian child in the 1940s and ’50s, however, one’s national definition came not primarily through school texts or through comparison with Canadian "others", but through comparison with Americans. The United States was everything that Canada was not: important, confident, fun… The States had a rich national mythology, full of stories of Revere’s midnight ride and Lincoln’s log cabin, which Canadian children gobbled up in American comics and story books. It had Mickey Mouse and Superman. True, there was a rumoured nasty underside to Americans, they were accused of being rude, crude and pushy. Still, Canadian children wished they could be American in the way that girls wished they could be boys – to be part of the action. Margaret Atwood has said, speaking of her childhood, "Canada for us was not-America" (Atwood 1982: 84). Since Canada was defined by what was not here (if one can even say here for such a marginal place), it did not really seem surprising that literature was one of those things that was not here.

Her non-national identity was particularly impressed on Atwood when she went to graduate school in the United States. For Americans, it appeared, Canadians were "grey" and "faceless", cultural nobodies. One thing was for Canadians to tell themselves that, another thing was to have other people tell them that. These goads to the national pride had the beneficial effect of making Canadians think about their distinguishing traits. "We sufferers" Atwood wrote, "would hunt for differences with the minute and random attention of robins on a worm-scarce lawn" (Cited by Sullivan 1998: 126). In self-defence Atwood and her fellow Canadian students began to tell Americans tall-tales about daring deeds in the wildly exciting Canadian backwoods. It seemed clear, therefore, that the wilderness was a crucial part of the Canadian self-identity even in the case of those Canadians who had little or no direct experience of it.

It was under these conditions that Atwood came up with the definition of the American national mania being megalomania while that of Canada was paranoia. In another analogy she compared the cautious Canadian beaver, always shoring up its dams, with the imperious American eagle, soaring above it all, searching for prey (Sullivan 1998: 126-127). It was such explorations of the uneasy Canadian identity, Atwood concluded, which needed to be pursued in Canadian literature. Canadian writers should offer the public reflections of and insights into the defining structures and experiences of the Canadian consciousness. Indeed Canadian writers, if they were representative of their culture, could hardly do other, for their imaginations would be shaped by the same structures and experiences. Margaret Atwood’s own work would become just such a cultural mirror for Canadians.


In Margaret Atwood’s work and person one finds intriguing parallels with the other Canadian figures discussed in this book: Lucy Maud Montgomery, Grey Owl, Glenn Gould and Alex Colville. One should perhaps find the most similarities with L.M. Montgomery, who, like Atwood, had to struggle against popular prejudices which held that neither women nor Canadians could really be writers, and who, like Atwood, succeeded in her quest. Both have become Canadian icons, as well being two of Canada’s best-known writers.

Certain parallels can be found in Montgomery’s and Atwood’s work, as well as in their lives. Anne of Green Gables has as its heroine a favourite character type of Atwood – an imaginative girl who leads a double life of fact and fancy and who seeks a place to belong. It has been argued, indeed, that certain of Atwood’s characters are reflections of Montgomery’s Anne. The protagonist of Cat’s Eye, Elaine Risley (who appears to be Atwood’s own fictional double), for example, seems at times to echo Anne playing Elaine of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in Anne of Green Gables (Givner 1992: 64-5).

Anne of Green Gables and Montgomery’s other fictions, however, share a rather cosy, old English Canadian vision of life. In Anne’s world French Canadians are only dull-witted servants, Indians are non-existent, and the wilderness is a violet-studded dell. Hard times may come, but with a Protestant work ethic, good cheer and faith they can almost always be overcome. This was not the world to interest the bush-raised Atwood. Her favourite book as a child was Ernest Thomas Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known. At the end of Anne of Green Gables Anne says: "God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world" (Montgomery 1968: 329). In Wild Animals I Have Known, Seton explains that all of his accounts are tragic because "the life of a wild animal always has a tragic end" (cited by Atwood 1972b: 74). Although, if one looks closely, Anne also has a tragic ending, with its heroine obliged to forsake her wild ways and accept the yoke of domesticity, it is Seton’s harsher vision of life which has informed Atwood’s writing. Atwood herself, interestingly, feels that her work still offers a somewhat sweetened version of reality. In response to persistent criticisms that she dwells too much on the dark side of things Atwood states: "compared to reality I’m a reincarnation of Anne of Green Gables" (Atwood 1982: 349).

Much more to Atwood’s taste than Montgomery or Anne of Green Gables is Grey Owl and his writings. Atwood can appreciate Grey Owl’s desire to escape the confines of "civilized" English society and immerse himself in the Canadian wilderness. Furthermore, unlike the settlers and explorers who ventured into Canada; Grey Owl did not wish to conquer the North, but to learn from it. In her poem "Progressive Insanities of a Pioneer" Atwood says of a pioneer who goes mad when he finds himself unable to impose order on the wilderness:

If he had known unstructured
      space is a deluge
     and stocked his log house-
      boat with all the animals…
      he might have floated (Atwood 1968: 38)

This "stocking his log house with animals" is precisely what Grey Owl – the anti-settler – did, when he turned his cabin into a home for beavers. Grey Owl, like Atwood, knew that with "wildwood wisdom" one did not have to be "swept away" by the immensity of the wilderness, but could live in harmony with it.

Atwood is well aware of Grey Owl’s ambivalent status as a "fake" Indian and of his place in the prickly debate concerning the appropriation of Native culture by whites. She is, however, more sympathetic to the Grey Owl side of the argument than to, in her words "the anti-appropriationists [who] have argued that non-Native writers have no right to write as if they were Natives" (Atwood 1995: 36). Atwood points out that "many Native writers… don’t endorse this [anti-appropriation] viewpoint, since the argument is reversible and they want to feel free to include non-Natives in their own work" (Atwood 1995: 36). With all due respect, this is not really the issue, as we saw in the chapter on Grey Owl. It is the dominant group within society which most effectually creates and controls cultural stereotypes. Native writers can fill reams of paper writing about their perceptions of whites without having much effect on mainstream culture, because of their relatively marginal position within Canadian society. When whites write about Natives, however, they have the cultural authority to create images of Native life which will penetrate a whole society’s (Native peoples often included) consciousness (see Howes 1996). To make a forceful analogy, it is not fair to say: "We all have an equal right to shoot at (create mis/representations of) each other", when you, as the dominant group, possess nearly all the guns.

As a writer who cherishes her ability to explore alter egos, however, Margaret Atwood naturally does not want to be confined as to the other identities she may take on. In the conclusion to Second Words she writes: "If writing novels – and reading them – have any redeeming social value, it’s probably that they force you to imagine what it’s like to be somebody else" (Atwood 1982: 430). Grey Owl in this case, stands not only for "wilderness wisdom", but for the right to assume another identity, to cross cultural and psychological borders, and to explore the tantalizing paradox of how "homeground" may be "foreign territory". (What is Grey Owl’s homeground? England. But England for him is foreign territory. What is Grey Owl’s homeground? Native Canada. But Native Canada for him is foreign territory.)

In her collection of essays on the Canadian North, Strange Things, Atwood examines what she calls "The Grey Owl Syndrome", – the white desire for Indianness – in Canadian culture. Contemporary examples of this syndrome include Robert Kroetsch’s 1973 book, Gone Indian, in which the white protagonist wants not simply to be an Indian, but to be Grey Owl – a white Indian. Other examples come from Atwood’s own stories "Death By Landcape" and "Wilderness Tips" in which whites long to be Indian (Atwood 1991.) Atwood goes back in time to dwell on her own childhood favorite, Ernest Thompson Seton, a.k.a. Black Wolf, who emigrated to Canada from England as a child in 1860. His love of the Canadian wilderness and his idealization of native Canadians led Seton to extol the wood-wise Indian as a role model for English children. Along these lines, Seton would help found the Boy Scouts movement in the United States (from which he was later expelled when he disagreed with what seemed to be a militarization of the Scouts). Atwood humorously remarks that "unlike Grey Owl, [Seton] did not attempt the rather modest feat of turning himself into an Indian, but pursued the greater ambition of turning everybody else into Indians, instead" (Atwood 1995: 42).

Seton, however, Atwood notes, knew that "Black Wolf" was just a role he played; "Seton knew where the boundary was between his created `Indian’ world and that other world in which he was a rich landowner, a friend of the famous, and a noted author and naturalist" (Atwood 1995: 48). Grey Owl, on the other hand, she comments, wants to obliterate boundaries – one might add – wants to create a new boundary between himself as Indian and others as "civilized" whites.

Whatever one’s opinion of "white Indians", Atwood considers them essential to the Canadian imagination: "in so far as there is such a thing as a Canadian cultural heritage, the long-standing white-into-Indian project is part of it." This is not such a bad thing in Atwood’s view because identifying with Indians has the social benefit of making whites "sympathetic to Indian claims", and, furthermore, it encourages them "to reverse the galloping environmental carnage of the late twentieth century" (Atwood 1995: 48, 60). Atwood concludes by stating "Perhaps we should not become less like Grey Owl and Black Wolf but more like them" (Atwood 1995: 60) A provocative statement, but one in keeping with Margaret Atwood’s concern for the preservation of the Canadian wilderness, and with her fascination with the reversal of the self through mirror images.

Let us turn now from Grey Owl and L.M. Montgomery, two of Atwood’s literary predecessors, to look at two of her contemporaries who express themselves through other artistic media: Glenn Gould and Alex Colville. To start with Gould, in the musician’s personal life there are a number of parallels with Atwood’s own personal history. Gould’s pendulum swings between city and country (if only cottage country), his creation of alter egos for himself, and his obsession with listening in on conversations are reminiscent of Atwood’s own alternations between city and bush, her creation of alter egos through her writing, and her interest in other voices (Atwood wrote that when she was a child she "used to wish for… the cloak of invisibility, so I could follow people around and listen to what they were saying" (Atwood 1982: 429) Glenn Gould also manifested a strong garrison mentality, which does not seem to be the case with Atwood, but which, together with other character traits, makes Gould in some ways the quintessential "paranoid schizophrenic" Canadian of Atwood’s typology.

In a comparison of Atwood’s and Gould’s art, one could say that the doubling of identities and lives which pervades Atwood’s writing has its counterpart in Gould’s doubling of voices in his radio documentaries and in his emphasis on counterpoint (which could be envisioned as the musical equivalent of a mirror). While Atwood has been much more concerned with issues of Canadian identity than was Gould, Gould did explore themes of Canadian culture and geography in his work. Gould’s "Idea of North", centring on five characters encounter with the mystique and reality of the Canadian North, for example, was produced in 1967, five years before Atwood’s own expression of the mythical Northern journey, Surfacing.

While Montgomery, Grey Owl, and Gould all have a certain resonance in Atwood’s work, it is with Alex Colville that the most subtle and provocative echoes occur. These echoes arise not from a comparison of biographies or personal interests but when one juxtaposes Colville’s paintings with Atwood’s writings. Many of Colville’s paintings would serve well as illustrations for Atwood’s poems and stories, for they share a similar style of tense, myth-laden realism and many similar themes: bounded and bound relationships (i.e. Colville’s Couple on Beach), impending violence (i.e. In the Woods) person as landscape (i.e. New Moon) and double identities (i.e. Colville’s Horse and Train).

Colville, like Atwood, is interested in mirror images, and this interest expreses itself in various ways in his work. A number of paintings show someone looking at a reflecting surface, for example, Looking Down, in which a woman leans over in a boat and looks down at the water, and Morning in which a woman stares into a mirror. Furthermore, some of Colville’s paintings portray close-up figures gazing pensively out of the canvas, as though looking into a mirror, such as the man in Target Pistol and Man. (Or is it the case that it is you, the viewer, who are looking at yourself in the mirror when you look at these images?)

Colville, again like Atwood, is also interested in portraying facelessness in his paintings, which can be construed as expressing a lack of, or a hidden, identity in the figures so portrayed. Many of Colville’s figures, and very often women, have their faces hidden from the viewer, either because their heads are cut off by the borders of the canvas, because their faces are hidden by something, such as a hat or a dog, or because they are turned away from the viewer. Are these the "faceless" Canadians and women of Atwood’s experience, or are they rather facing other, unknown, realities? Do they, like Marian in The Edible Woman, indeed find it "satisfying to be the only one who knew where I really was"? (Atwood 1978b: 73) Or are they, like Atwood’s Susanna Moodie, giving up the illusion of a personal self in order to suggest a multitude of realities:

I take this picture of myself
and with my sewing scissors
cut out the face
Now it is more accurate:
where my eyes were,
thing appears
(Atwood 1970: epigraph)

When Colville’s images are coupled with Atwood’s words they reflect each other in powerful ways. A good example is Colville’s Morning in which a naked woman sits on one side of a bed facing the viewer, but with her face obscured by the hand mirror she holds, and a naked man sits on the other side, facing away from the woman and the viewer. The mirror covers and is the same size as the woman’s head, turning the woman herself into a mirror. This identification is reinforced by the fact that the handle of the mirror is shaped like a woman, symbolically making it a woman-mirror. This illustration would form a forceful counterpart to a number of Atwood’s mirror images in which women lose themselves in, find themselves in, or become mirrors – usually with an unresponsive man somewhere in the picture.

Consider now the man and woman on the snowy hill in Colville’s January, separate, expressionless, each facing different directions, yet ostensibly walking together, in the light of these lines from Atwood’s poem "You Are Happy".

We walk separately
along the hill…
When you are this
cold you can think about
nothing but the cold, the images
hitting into your eyes
like needles, crystals, you are happy.
(Atwood 1974: 28)

Are the couple really happy? Or are they just "happy" to have the pain of their alienation from each other anaesthetized by the cold? Is the long cold winter a way for Canadians to deaden themselves to their own alienation from each other?

In another example, consider Colville’s Refrigerator as a cover illustration for The Edible Woman. The naked woman in the dark kitchen, peering into the lighted refrigerator, searching for some kind of sustenance, some kind of meaning, perhaps trying to see into herself. The naked man drinking a glass of milk, watching her, consuming her with his eyes and consuming her through the milk (female fertility, motherhood, the edible woman). Here we would find echoes of Marian’s dual anxiety over food and men in The Edible Woman. The morning after her engagement to the predatory Peter, for instance, Marian opens her refrigerator and wonders if she could possibly face an egg (i.e. child-bearing). Although Marian escapes apparent assimilation by Peter, at the end of the book she finds herself – in the form of the woman-shaped cake she has made – consumed by another male friend: "He scraped the last chocolate curl up with his fork and pushed away the plate. `Thank you,’ he said, licking his lips. `It was delicious’" (Atwood 1978b: 294). Interestingly, the cover illustration which was actually used for the Seal paperback of The Edible Woman is a play on Colville’s painting. It shows a naked woman in a dark kitchen looking into the lighted insides of a refrigerator which has the same shape as herself.

While such interpretations seem to reflect negatively on the relationship of the couples in Colville’s painting, these couples, individual, yet balanced and committed to each other, could equally well (and perhaps better) serve to illustrate Atwood’s personal – and cultural – ideal of a "unity of you and I" – that is, of "two people meeting in balance, maintaining their differences" (Sullivan 1998: 158). Colville and Atwood are not expressing precisely the same motifs through their work nor are they employing the same style, yet their very divergences – Colville’s cool otherworldly serenity and Atwood’s twitchy this-worldly anxiety – makes them come alive with a bristling new energy when juxtaposed.

Despite the significant ways in which they diverge, all of the artists discussed above manifest a preoccupation with themes of dualities and boundaries. Canadians’ long-standing preoccupations with these themes has often been interpreted negatively, by Canadians themselves, as evidence of a disturbingly split and paranoid personality. Americans, despite all their social problems, seem so much more whole and self-confident, so much more "normal". If only "we" could find our identity, the argument goes, we could recover our mental health and finally be somebody. In Survival Atwood writes that "the large number of mirror and reflection images contained within [Canadian] literature suggest a society engaged in a vain search for an image" (Atwood 1972b: 16).

The thesis of the present work, however, is that the concern with dualisms and borders is not just an expression of Canada’s anxious search for an identity, it is a fundamental part of that identity, embodied within and enforced by the Canadian constitution. Nor is this aspect of being Canadian necessarily negative, any more than an expansive wholeness is necessarily positive. Having "two heads" enables one to consider different perspectives and to experience and create alternative worlds. Margaret Atwood herself offers many positive images of duality throughout her work. Even her depiction of Canadians as schizophrenic is not solely negative, for such schizophrenia is also "our greatest potential strength" (Grace 1980: 33). (In The Origin of Conciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, a book which, because of its bicentrism, strongly appealed to Atwood, schizophrenics are said to have an exceptional capacity for creativity; see Carrington 1988; Turner 1985). As Sherill Grace points out in her essay on Atwood, Violent Duality: "to live with duality [is] very difficult" (Grace 1980: 132). Yet it may also be tremendously exciting and enriching.


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