Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

The Return of the Dead in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing and Alias Grace

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

The Return of the Dead in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing and Alias Grace

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

1972 was Margaret Atwood's annus mirabilis. In one and the same year, she published Surfacing, a powerful and disturbing novel that has become a classic of twentieth-century fiction, and Survival, an engaging study of the characteristic themes of Canadian literature that has established itself as a major critical text on works written north of the 49th parallel. The title of this study points to what, according to Atwood, her compatriots are most likely to write about: surviving the hardship of a barren land and an inhospitable climate, surviving a crisis or a disaster, or surviving, in a psychological or cultural sense, different kinds of victimisation or canonicalization (41).

Whether survival really constitutes the central theme of Canadian literature is a question that need not detain us here. What is more important in the present context is the fact that it plays a prominent part in Atwood's own writings. She readily admits as much in the introduction to Survival, in which she states that "several [...] of the patterns I've found myself dealing with here were first brought to my attention by my own work" (20). Thus one of Atwood's central concerns is close to the restoration from death, the theme of the conference at which a preliminary version of this paper was presented.1 Admittedly, to survive does not literally mean to be restored from death, but it means to be restored from a near-death experience or from a situation which can be metaphorically described as death-in-life.

Thirty years after Survival, Atwood published another book of popular literary criticism, Negotiating with the Dead, in which she moves even closer to the restoration-from-death topic. Commenting on the chapter title that is also the title of the book, she argues:

The title of this chapter is "Negotiating with the Dead," and its hypothesis is that not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality-by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead. (156)

Again, this sweeping generalisation is based just as much on Atwood's own work as on literature in general. A cursory perusal of her writings yields a long list of people returning from the underworld. An early poem from The Animals in that Country (1968), "The revenant," describes "the skull's noplace, where in me / refusing to be buried, cured, / the trite dead walk" (52); in the final poem of The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), the eponymous heroine returns to twentieth-century Toronto long after her death; in Surfacing (1972), the protagonist encounters the ghosts of her parents; Lady Oracle (1976) begins with the words, "I planned my death carefully" (T), and is about a woman who stages her own death to cut herself loose from her old life and begin a new one; Cat's Eye (1988) features a protagonist who portrays herself as a vampire (233) and interprets Halloween as an event "when the spirits of the dead will come back to the living, dressed as ballerinas and Coke bottles and spacemen and Mickey Mice, and the living will give them candy to keep them from turning vicious" (387); in "Death by Landscape," a story from Wilderness Tips (1991), the narrator is troubled by the continuing presence of a childhood friend who disappeared on a canoe trip; in Alias Grace (1996), the dead return to the living to haunt or even possess them; in The Penelopiad (2004), Penelope talks to us from Hades. Atwood's two most recent books, both published in 2006, also include negotiations with the dead. In "The Entities," one of the short stories in Moral Disorder, a landlady relocates the ghost of a recently deceased tenant, who was also the first wife of her husband; and "Nightingale," one of the miscellaneous short pieces in The Tent, contains a dialogue between the ghost of Procne and Philomela, who may or may not be a ghost herself. …

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