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“Death by Landscape” (1989) is a short story by celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood. The short story is a complex and multi-layered story that explores themes such as the unknown, memory and guilt, and coming of age. It also embodies many of Atwood’s theories of Canadian literature, including the prevalence of nature and the notion of survival.
“Death by Landscape” begins with Lois sitting in her apartment on Toronto’s waterfront. Her husband is dead, and her sons are grown, so Lois now lives alone, surrounded by her art collection of landscape paintings.
As Lois sits in her apartment, she recalls a canoe trip she took at summer camp when she was fourteen years old. As a girl, Lois attended Camp Manitou in the Canadian wilderness every summer.
At first, Lois hated camp. She was homesick and disliked the constant noise of her fellow campers. However, in her second year, Lois made friends with a girl named Lucy. Lucy lived in the United States, in Chicago, in a large, gated house with a full-time maid, and Lois was immediately impressed by Lucy’s causal, self-assured attitude.
The two became close and stayed in touch by writing letters throughout the year. Every year when they met again at camp, Lois was amazed by how much Lucy had changed.
The summer the girls were fourteen years old, Lois noticed that Lucy had changed more than usual. Her parents had divorced, and Lucy hated living with her mother and new stepfather. She also had a boyfriend, a gardener’s assistant who worked at their house.
That summer, the girls’ camp group was scheduled to go on their first week-long canoe trip. Lois was excited about the trip but hid her enthusiasm in the face of Lucy’s lack of interest.
The camp leader, Cappie, sent the group off with a ceremony around the campfire. As an adult, Lois muses about the inappropriateness of her counselor wearing feathers and telling the campers: “Do good in war, my braves, and capture many scalps.”
At the time, however, Lois found the ceremony captivating. The girls set out the following day with two counselors, Pat and Kip, in charge. The first night, Lois and Lucy got permission to sleep outside, away from the other girls, so they could stay up talking. Lucy told Lois that she hated her life in Chicago and didn’t want to return. When Lois pressed her, however, Lucy didn’t respond, perhaps pretending to be asleep.
The next day, the girls continued paddling. When they stopped for lunch, Lois and Lucy took a quick hike up Lookout Point, a cliff overlooking the lake. Lois was afraid of heights, but Lucy walked up to the ledge and wondered what it would be like to jump off into the lake below.
Lucy backed off, however, and told Lois she needed to go to the bathroom. Lois gave her friend some toilet paper and walked down the trail a bit to give her some privacy. After a moment, Lois heard a shout. She believes that it was a shout of surprise.
She went back to check on Lucy, but the girl was nowhere to be found. Lois hurried back down the trail to inform the counselors, but still, no one could find the missing girl. The canoe trip turned around and paddled the two days back to camp to notify the police, but no trace of Lucy was ever found.
Upon their return, Lois was called into Cappie’s office. The head counselor questioned her about what had happened on the cliff, insinuating, perhaps, that Lois had done something to Lucy.
Back in the present day, Lois reflects on her life, thinking that she was never fully present. She felt as if she was always partially living in a world of what would have happened if Lucy hadn’t vanished. For her whole life, she avoided wild places, convinced she could hear the echo of Lucy’s voice.
She surrounds herself with paintings of these wild places feeling that each is a painting of her lost friend.
Two key symbols in Margaret Atwood’s “Death by Landscape” are Lois’ apartment and her collection of landscape paintings.
In “Death by Landscape,” Lois lives alone in an apartment in “one of Toronto’s newer waterfront developments.”
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, or about strange noises. This building has a security system, and the only plant life is in pots in the solarium. - “Death by Landscape”
The apartment symbolizes the division between civilization and the wilderness. It has large windows overlooking the lake yet remains completely separated from nature.
Lois feels safe in her apartment not only because she is protected from humanity but also from nature. Since Lucy’s disappearance, Lois has avoided wild places, yet she fills her home with paintings of these same places, suggesting perhaps, that the two can never be separated.
Lois’ art collection is perhaps the most important symbol in “Death by Landscape.”
She bought them because she wanted them. She wanted something that was in them although she could not have said at the time what it was. It was not peace: She does not find them peaceful in the least. Looking at them fills her with a wordless unease. Despite the fact that there are no people in them or even animals, it’s as if there is something, or someone, looking back out. -“Death by Landscape”
The paintings symbolize the great impact that Lucy’s disappearance had on Lois and how it irrevocably changed her life. Even to Lois, these paintings symbolize her missing friend. In the absence of people in the images, Lois sees Lucy.
Although “Death by Landscape” is quite short, the story explores several interesting themes, including the unknown, memory and guilt, and coming of age.
Much of the impact of Lucy’s disappearance comes from its mystery.
But a dead person is a body; a body occupies space, it exists somewhere. You can see it; you put it in a box and bury it in the ground, and then it’s in a box in the ground. But Lucy is not in a box or in the ground. Because she is nowhere definite, she could be anywhere. -“Death by Landscape”
Lucy vanishes without a trace, almost right under her best friend’s nose. No one can understand what happened, Lois least of all. The unknown also echos the vastness of the Canadian wilderness, a stretch of completely untamed, unknowable land. Lucy disappears into this wilderness, this unknown, and becomes unknowable herself.
Although Lois is not responsible for Lucy’s disappearance, the event affects the entirety of her life, and she forever feels haunted by grief and uncertainty.
She felt the other girls in the cabin watching her with speculation in their eyes. Could she have done it! She must have done it. For the rest of her life, she has caught people watching her in this way. -“Death by Landscape”
Lois muses that she was never fully present with her family and children because she was always partially living in a world where Lucy never vanished. She avoids wild places because she thinks she can hear Lucy’s voice in the silence, and she fills her home with paintings of these same wild places, sensing Lucy’s presence in the absence of humanity.
Often, critical coming-of-age rites occur at summer camp, and Camp Manitou is no different.
The next year, when they had graduated from Bluejays and entered Ravens, she [Lucy] got her period, right in the first week of camp. The two of them snitched some matches from their counselor, who smoked illegally, and made a small fire out behind the furthest outhouse, at dusk, using their flashlights…On this fire they burned one of Lucy’s used sanitary napkins. Lois is not sure why they did this or whose idea it was. But she can remember the feeling of deep satisfaction it gave her as the white fluff singed and the blood sizzled, as if some wordless ritual had been fulfilled. -“Death by Landscape”
Lois and Lucy grow up together at camp and take advantage of the independence they find there to explore and rebel, stealing cigarettes from the counselors and sneaking out after hours.
The ill-fated canoe trip is, in itself, an important coming-of-age journey. It is a trip only the older girls are allowed to take, and the ceremony that precedes it has the air of an initiation.
“Death by Landscape” is a complex, multi-layered story that can generate many different analyses. To better understand the story, it can be helpful to understand some of Margaret Atwood’s theories on Canadian literature.
Margaret Atwood is well known for her book Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), in which she discusses the characteristics and identity of Canadian literature. She argues that the key theme in Canadian literature is survival. The literature generally explores the victim’s position: someone defeated or oppressed by various factors such as other people, the wilderness, or situations and circumstances that must be survived.
Canada is also a country with vast wild places, a feature that Atwood suggests has a strong influence on the country’s literature:
Not surprisingly in a country with such a high ratio of trees, lakes and rocks to people, images from Nature are almost everywhere. Added up, they depict a Nature that is often dead and unanswering or actively hostile to man -Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (Chapter Two)
Nature, therefore, often plays a key role in Canadian literature as something that the victim must survive. However, many times nature emerges as the victor:
Death by Nature – not to be confused with “natural deaths” such as heart attacks – is an event of startling frequency in Canadian literature; in fact it seems to polish off far more people in literature than it does in real life. In Death by Nature, something in the natural environment murders the individual, though the author – who is of course the real guilty party, since it is he who has arranged the murder – often disguises the foul deed to make it look like an accident. -Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (Chapter Two)
Although we don’t know for sure that Lucy died, many of these ideas are useful for analyzing “Death by Landscape.” The theme of survival and victimization is particularly clear in the story. Lucy vanishes, but Lois is both survivor and victim. She returns from the canoe trip alive, but is plagued by guilt and memories for the rest of her life.
The presence of nature permits the text. Even Lois’ apartment, so civilized and controlled, is filled with images of the wild and gazes out over the lake, letting nature in.
What parallels can you draw between Atwood's description of "Death by Nature" and the title of the story, "Death by Landscape?" Is landscape the same as nature?
What other elements in "Death by Landscape" might mark the story as a work of Canadian literature?
“Death by Landscape” explores the guilt and confusion that a woman, Lois, still feels years after her childhood friend vanished without a trace during a summer camp canoe trip.
To Lois, the paintings in “Death in Landscape” represent the presence of her missing friend, Lucy. To the reader, the paintings also represent the terrible impact that Lucy’s disappearance had on Lois and how the experience continues to influence her life.
During a summer camp canoe trip, Lucy disappeared without a trace while taking a short hike with her best friend, Lois.
The title “Death by Landscape” refers to the key role that the wilderness plays in the story. Lucy vanishes as if the landscape itself swallowed her up.
“Death by Landscape” was first published in 1989.
Who wrote “Death by Landscape?”
Where does “Death by Landscape” take place?
In Lois’ apartment in Toronto and at Camp Manitou in the Canadian wilderness
Where is Lucy from, and why does she come to Camp Manitou?
Lucy is from Chicago, and her mother sends her to Camp Manitou because it was the camp she attended as a child.
Which is NOT a key theme in “Death by Landscape?”
Why does Lois collect landscape paintings?
Because she believes she can sense Lucy’s presence in them.
How old are Lois and Lucy when Lucy disappears?
Fourteen years old
What are the names of the counselors who lead the girls’ canoe trip?
Pat and Kip
Margaret Atwood argued that ______ was the key theme in Canadian literature.
What are two important symbols in “Death by Landscape?”
Lois’ apartment and her art collection
When was “Death by Landscape” published?
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