Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

A Response to "The Return of the Dead in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing and Alias Grace"*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

A Response to "The Return of the Dead in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing and Alias Grace"*

Article excerpt

An arbitrary choice then, a definitive moment: October 23, 1990. It's a bright clear day, unseasonably warm. It's a Tuesday [...]. The sun moves into Scorpio, Tony has lunch at the Toxique with her two friends Roz arid Charis, a sUght breeze blows in over Lake Ontario, and Zenia returns from the dead (RB 4).

This quote is from Margaret Atwood's 1993 novel The Robber Bride in which there is a character, Zenia, that mysteriously comes back from the world of the dead to that of the Uving. Burkhard Niederhoff makes very interesting and appropriate references to various returns from the dead in Atwood's narrative prose, including The Tent. Regarding her poetry, he notes a stubborn refusal "to be buried" in The Animals in that Country (1968) as well as Moodie's last meditations from underground, in The Journals of Susanna Moodie's final poem (1970).

The starting point of his discussion are three texts by Atwood, one work of fiction, namely Surfacing (1972), and two books of criticism, Survival, published in the same significant year, and a much later text, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002). Niederhoff proposes a daring pair: Surfacing and Alias Grace (1996). Two works which have hardly ever been discussed together. The two novels belong in fact to very different periods within the Atwood canon, besides the span of more than twenty years that separates them. There are, however, interesting similarities as well as crucial differences between them that Niederhoff quite accurately points out.

Given the prominence of the supernatural and ghostly presences in Niederhoff 's essay, it is important to focus for a moment on the novel I quoted above that, strangely enough, is not mentioned, namely TTie Robber Bride (1993). In this novel, Zenia's return from the underworld is a pregnant part of the plot. She suddenly bursts on the scene into the streets of Toronto while the women whose lives she tried to destroy - Roz, Tony and Charis - are having their usual monthly lunch at the Toxique in downtown Toronto.

In Survival Atwood has noted with dismay that women in Canadian literature have generally been limited to the role of ice women, earth mothers, or whores - all of whom have natural, rather than supernatural, powers (cf. Survival 199-206). Canadians, in general have been denied supernatural representation. In "Canadian Monsters: Some Aspects of the Supernatural in Canadian Fiction" (1977), included in her collection of essays, Second Words, Atwood observes that "magic and monsters don't usually get associated with Canadian literature [...]. Supernaturalism is not typical of Canadian prose fiction; the mainstream [...] has been solidly social-realistic. When people in Canadian fiction die, which they do fairly often, they usually stay buried" (230). In addition, Canada has traditionally been portrayed as "a dull place, devoid of romantic interest and rhetorical excess, with not enough blood spilled on the soil to make it fertile, and above all, ghostless" (231).

Donna Potts has in various ways underlined that, in The Robber Bride, "[throughout the text, Atwood's many references to witches, vampires, monsters, and ghosts also affirm the presence of the supernatural in Canada" (Potts 283). If we consider this in the light of a Canadian literary tradition that Atwood herself tried to define, the ghostly, flickering presence of Zenia acquires further significance. As early as in Survival Atwood had repeatedly emphasized the urgency "to explore the possibilities" of a given tradition or pattern (174): "A tradition doesn't necessarily exist to bury you: it can also be used as material for new departures" (246).

The wicked and 'monstrous' Zenia returns unannounced into the world of the Uving much to the bewUderment of the three protagonists. It is only at the very end of the novel that she definitively dies, this time with her ashes dispersed by Tony, Charis and Roz over Lake Ontario. Then again the figure of Zenia herseU could be a trick of the imagination, a ghost, a spirit: "The story of Zenia is insubstantial, ownerless, a rumor only [. …

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