Margaret Atwood’s Death by Landscape

Wilderness Tips

In Margaret Atwood’s short story, “Death by Landscape,” widowed mother, Lois, is haunted by the disappearance of her childhood friend, Lucy. At the beginning of the story, Lois has moved into a new waterfront apartment and is hanging her art collection. The paintings—wilderness landscapes—fill her will a sense of unease.

Lois recalls her time spent at summer camp between the ages of 11 and 13 and her close friendship with Lucy. By their last year at camp, Lucy seemed to have changed, disillusioned by her parents’ divorce and involved in a relationship with the gardener’s assistant. During a week-long excursion into the wilderness with their camp counsellor, Cappie, Lois and Lucy separate briefly from the other girls and climb a trail to a lookout point over the lake. Lucy says she has to urinate, but doesn’t return, and shortly after Lois hears a scream. The girls, and later the police, find no sign of Lucy or her body. Cappie implies that Lois must have pushed her.

Back in her waterfront apartment, closed off from the outside world, Lois struggles to come to terms with Lucy’s disappearance but is still unable to overcome her loss and grief.

The Threat of Wilderness

Lois experiences two unreconciled visions of the wilderness: the way she views the wilderness in her childhood and the way she views it as an adult. By the time she is thirteen, Lois has become an “old hand” at Camp Manitou.  She enjoys many of the things she hated at first, “the noisy chaos and spoon-banging of the dining hall, the rowdy singsongs at which you were expected to yell in order to show that you were enjoying yourself.”  The adult Lois, looking back on her childhood experiences, recognizes how her view of the wilderness as a place of recreation has been transformed.

Unable to come to terms with the inexplicable disappearance of her childhood friend, Lois has come to view the wilderness as a threatening force. It represents her grief and her fear of the unknown, and she now interprets all of her childhood experiences at Camp Manitou in a different light.  She can still remember all of the words and acting-out gestures of the campfire songs, but the idea that she will never be able to forget them is “a sad thought.” Although she remembers that she once “loved the campfire, the flickering light on the ring of faces,” the adult Lois no longer finds solace in these images.

Even the thirteen-year-old Lois who found enjoyment at camp senses a sinister aspect to the wilderness.  As she sets out on the canoe trip, Lois “can feel the water stretching out, with the shores twisting away on either side, immense and a little frightening.” But for the young Lois, the wilderness is frightening in its immensity, in its power and vastness, not for the secrets that it may conceal.

An Artificial Retreat

The adult Lois battles this threatening wilderness by closing herself off entirely in an artificial world.  She moves into a new condominium apartment and “she is relieved not to have to worry about the lawn, or about the ivy pushing its muscular little suckers into the brickwork, or the squirrels gnawing their way into the attic and eating the insulation off the wiring.” She sees the wilderness as an invading force, but feels safe in her new apartment where the only plant life exists in pots in the solarium.

Lois’s only access to wilderness now comes through the window of her apartment, where she has a view of Lake Ontario “and of the willows of Centre Island shaken by a wind, which is silent at this distance, and on this side of the glass,” and through her landscape paintings. In her closed-off world, Lois can still see the wilderness without actually having to experience it first-hand.

Death by Landscape

However, resistance to the wilderness is psychologically damaging to Lois, and Atwood suggests that Lois must come to terms with her vision of the wilderness in order to achieve peace with her past. As the adult Lois remembers the events leading up to Lucy’s disappearance she wonders, “Was there anything important, anything that would provide some sort of reason or clue to what happened next?”  She also feels, after Cappie implies that she pushed Lucy over the cliff, that “she had been tried and sentenced…condemned for something that was not her fault.” This feeling of being sentenced, combined with her inability to make any sense of Lucy’s disappearance, leads Lois to relocate Lucy in the paintings that fill her with “a wordless unease…as if there is something, or someone, looking back out.”

Lois’s obsession with Lucy begins to obscure the memories of her former life: “She can hardly remember, now, having her two boys in the hospital, nursing them as babies, or what Rob looked like.” She even feels that “she was living not one life but two: her own, and another, shadowy life…the life of what would have happened if Lucy had not stepped sideways, and disappeared from time.” Lois has let her inability to understand Lucy’s disappearance take control of her life.  At least if Lucy were dead her body would occupy space, it would exist somewhere; but “Lucy is not in a box, or in the ground.  Because she is nowhere definite, she could be anywhere.”

So Lois collects paintings and she keeps Lucy alive in the landscapes, “in the holes that open inwards on the wall, not like windows but like doors.” Since Lois cannot overcome her obsession or make sense of the unknown, Atwood suggests she will continue to live in this shadowy reality, unable to come to terms with her loss or to conquer her fear of the mysterious wilderness.

“Death by Landscape” by Margaret Atwood is published in the collection Wilderness Tips by Seal Books (1998), ISBN 978-0770428266.

© Jennifer Bertrand, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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3 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood’s Death by Landscape

  1. This is one of my favorite stories. I haven’t run across it in years, and one thing I’m curious about is this: In your opinion, is this more vignette or fictional memoir than a story? In my memory, most of the story is told in flashback and there’s no event or decision that transforms Lois in some way. If she’s static, which considering how her life has been frozen by the tragedy, makes sense, then I think Margaret Atwood “broke” a standard rule of story telling, but the piece is still so completely beautiful and compelling that I consider it perfect.

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    • Thanks for reading David and for your insightful comments. I hadn’t considered the story as vignette or fictional memoir; if I had to choose, I think vignette because the story gives us a glimpse of a particular episode in Lois’s past. I agree, ,the story is beautiful. It haunted me long after reading.

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  2. Yes, haunting
    Her childhood alone in “the woods” tells the story of a fear in the over whelming vastness we can’t meet equally. Lois herself wants to “dissolve”into the woods, but it is the weak sick girl who allows herself or wants to dissapear- in this “fairytale”. Atwood read a lot of fairytales .
    See wickapedia article.

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