In “Death by Landscape,” Margaret Atwood rewrites early American stories about the wilderness from her own trenchant perspective. At the same time, the story finds literary ancestors in Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories, especially the locked-room mystery (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”) and those in which the answer is hidden in plain sight (“The Purloined Letter”). Other themes in this story are the relationships between girls (see Cat’s Eye), sexuality and its dangers, and art and the artist (see The Blind Assassin and “True Trash,” also in Wilderness Tips).
“Death by Landscape” begins by juxtaposing wilderness and civilization, only to reveal how they overlap. Lois, the main character, has a new apartment “now that the boys are grown up and [her husband] is dead” (127). The apartment is crowded with landscape paintings, which themselves show this overlap: Lois imagines “a tangle, a receding maze, in which you can become lost almost as soon as you step off the path” (152). It is impossible, of course, to step off a path in a painting, but for Lois, the idea is quite real and terrifying.
Lois “is relieved not to have to worry about the lawn, or the squirrels gnawing their way into the attic and eating the insulation off the wiring, or about strange noises. The building has a security system” (127). Even the tamer, more cultivated forms of nature presented on the story’s first page—lawns, squirrels, and plants—are presented as things that encroach, that endanger one’s safety and security; indeed, Lois seems to believe that her security system will keep not just human nature but nature itself at bay.
Lois has collected these paintings out of a compulsion to recapture something from her girlhood experiences at Camp Manitou. What she is trying to capture is unnamed—indeed, the unnamed, the hidden, and the wordless take center stage in this story—but by the end of the story, we suspect that what she is trying to recapture is Lucy, the friend she made in her second year at camp. As an American, Lucy seems exotic to Lois, both more wild and more sophisticated than she. The two become fast friends, even pretending to be twins. Indeed, Atwood, who is fond of word games (she copyrights her works under the name O. W. Toad, an anagram of Atwood), suggests that they, too, overlap, by giving them names that are phonetic anagrams of each other: Rearrange the sounds of Lois and you get something like Lucy. The girls only see each other in the summer. Lucy changes from year to year: One year, her parents have divorced and she has a stepfather; the next, she begins to have periods; and the next, when she is marked by the heightened sexual nature of her home and her own budding sexuality, Lois’s and Lucy’s group go on a canoe trip.
The canoe trip is meant to be a rite of passage, and “Lois feels as if an invisible rope has broken. They’re floating free, on their own, cut loose” (140). But the entire experience is supervised and carefully planned, crafted to present a specific and misleading understanding of both the society these young women are passing into and the roles they will take in it. The camp portrays itself as a return to nature, but clues abound that the canoe trip, like the rest of the camp, is not as “pure, and aboriginal” as the characters would like to believe. The most important clues we are given are the “burned tin can and a beer bottle” in the fireplace that await them at the first campsite.
Beneath the surface of events at the camp is the suggestion that real womanhood should not be openly addressed or even admitted. In a ceremony before the canoe trip, for instance, Cappie, who runs the camp, calls the campers “braves” (139). Unlike Cappie’s ceremony, about which Lois is deeply ambivalent and “Lucy rolls up her eyes” (138), Lois and Lucy’s private ceremony, when Lois and Lucy “burned one of Lucy’s used sanitary napkins” (136), is a more genuine rite of passage, both “wordless” and filling Lois with “deep satisfaction” (136). Also not talked about are the hints of sexual inappropriateness and even danger. By not saying anything outright, Atwood recreates both the social rules of post–World War II society and the ignorance they create in Lois’s own consciousness.
Descriptions of the camp mostly center on its rules, both spoken and unspoken—rules that translate into the real world, as “Lois thinks she can recognize women who went to these camps, and were good at it. They have a hardness to their handshakes, even now; a way of standing, legs planted firmly and farther apart than usual; a way of sizing you up” (130). The rules are one way the camp socializes young women, and Lois, though at first uncomfortable with the rules, is herself socialized by them, culminating in her realization, shortly before Lucy disappears, “that they’ve traveled so far, over all that water, with nothing to propel them but their own arms. It makes her feel strong. There are all kinds of things she is capable of doing” (144). This, of course, is only partly true; she is propelled, in part, by the social obligations Cappie felt to keep the camp going, by the obligations the “Old Girls” (131) felt to send their daughters there, by the money that bought the canoes, and so on. As soon as Lois has this equivocal epiphany, Atwood shatters it: The girls are not alone and not as powerful as they think but are subject to the vagaries not of nature, but of human nature.
At the second campsite, Lois and Lucy leave the group to hike up to Lookout Point. When Lucy leaves the path, she disappears. Lookout Point, like many other names in the story, is meaningful. Since “what you were supposed to see from there was not clear” (143), Atwood is suggesting that we consider the other meaning of lookout: to be careful.
In a way, Lucy’s disappearance happens to Lois as well. Indeed, the two are close enough that when Lois tells Cappie that just before Lucy disappeared, “She said you could dive off there. She said it went straight down” (148), Cappie deftly turns this hint of a suicide wish into proof of Lois’s own guilt—and Lois, in a way, accepts it. Cappie, she understands later, did this to Lois out of “desperation, her need for a story, a real story with a reason in it” (149). But Lois herself never finds the reason and is so deeply affected by what happened that she seems perpetually both guilty and victimized. She misses the wilderness tip, the clue that, as does Poe’s purloined letter, lies in plain sight: As in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the perception of the locked door—that nature is safe and the camp is secluded—is misleading. Humanity, if not civilization, pervades the camp and the canoe trip. The only death by landscape is Lois’s. Landscape, Atwood tells us, is a lie about nature: a convention that, by turning nature into an aesthetic object, leaves too much—including human nature itself—out of the picture.
To get the most out of this story, readers must rebuild the “real story” from clues embedded in Lois’s understanding. Readers must also make sense of the “Indian” names used at the camp, which are oddly appropriate, since the camp, in trying to signify a return to nature, overlooks both that “Indians” had their own civilization and that the camp is still closely tied to the rules of society at large. They must consider what Lois sees when she looks at Lucy as an American and when, from her apartment, she looks across Lake Ontario at America (150). They must investigate Lois’s guilt, where it might come from, and what it leads to. And they must examine how nature is presented in the story: as a reflection of the characters’ feelings, as a repository for the characters’ wishes, and as a scapegoat.
Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.
Hammill, Faye. “ ‘Death by Nature’: Margaret Atwood and Wilderness Gothic.” Gothic Studies 5, no. 2 (November 2003): 47–63.
Howells, Coral Ann, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.