To show an example of how animals are used in a purely symbolic way in Canadian literature, the animal imagery in the novel Surfacing (1972) by Margaret Atwood is analysed. Surfacing is a deep psychological novel about identity-searching and suppressed dilemmas that need to come to surface so that the protagonist can carry on with her life. A nameless young woman needs to come to terms with the mysterious disappearance of her father, her suppressed feelings of guilt caused by having an abortion, and her current love affair with Joe. She, Joe and another couple come to her native home, located on a remote island in the Canadian wilderness, to look for her lost father. In this as well as in her other early writings, Atwood uses animals mainly as symbols or images (Moss 128). Apart from that, she explores not only the Canadian concerns, but the more global ones as well, such as “the crisis of humanism” and “suppression of both women and animals” (Moss 128-129). Surfacing tends to follow some of the thoughts developed in Atwood’s critical work on Canadian literature, Survival, published in the same year. Both of these works do not primarily focus on the abuse of animals, rather they confront the Canadian identity crisis (Moss 133).
Surfacing offers rich animal symbolism and imagery. The woman narrator compares Joe, her lover, to a “buffalo on the u.s. nickel” implying that the same fate is awaiting him (Atwood, Surfacing 3). David, her friend and Anna’s husband, stresses that Canada is actually set up on the bodies of dead animals, like fish, seals and, most importantly, beavers (46). He even suggests that beavers should be the ones who will destroy the “Yanks” (46). In thenovel, Atwood also contemplates the death of animals for human sake and compares their sacrifice with the sacrifice of Jesus, by which she implies that when eating animals we are actually eating the flesh of Jesus, who also offered his body so that people may live (179). The nameless protagonist herself expresses a strong sympathy with all living beings and the nature in general, a theme that can be traced in more recent Atwood’s fiction as well, for instance in the characters of Nell in Moral Disorder, or Oryx in the MaddAddam trilogy.
The two issues of animal symbolism and national identity crisis meet when the search party comes across a dead heron tied to a tree resembling a Jesus figure or a victim of lynching (Surfacing 148-9). At first, the narrator blames a group of Americans for this revolting crime, automatically associating this kind of senseless action with the typical destructive behaviour of Americans towards nature. However, later they find out that the wrongdoers are not of American nationality after all, but Canadian, which leaves a sense of warning and paradox (165). The narrator realizes that the threat does not come only from beyond the borders in the United States, but lurks inside her home country, too. In this part of the story, the dead heron is again used mostly in a symbolic way, representing a Christ-like sacrificial victim of the pointless exploitative attitude towards nature and animals, and the image of it haunts the protagonist of the novel long after. The narrator also identifies with animals and wilderness in general, as they have no spokesman (167), and also because the Aboriginal people in her native land share the history of being sold together with the land and the animals (169). This remark may again reflect that the image of Canada as a colony pervades not only the Canadian mind but is also mirrored in Canadian literature, recalling the patterns Atwood states in Survival.
The sympathy the main protagonist feels for the animals is expressed in various forms. She remembers going fishing frequently in her childhood, and how she did not really want to catch the fish by ploy, but instead she hoped it would freely decide to be caught by her, as opposed to her brother’s fishing technique, who always applied his cunning to succeed (Surfacing 78). At present, she is also restrained about killing a fish by herself, and even though she is probably the most skilled animal-killer in their searching expedition of four, she is also regretful about killing a living being and somehow feels that it is not right, even though her reason tells her otherwise. She tries to persuade herself that it is irrational to waver over killing certain things like “food and enemies, fish and mosquitoes” (79-80). She also notes that senseless killing of animals only for sport or fun is not right, and can actually be a predicament to killing people as the animal killing functions as a kind of training, and the other way round, when no wars are fought, killing animals acts as a substitute for other forms of killing (153-5).
Through the protagonist, Atwood also comments on the distinction between the natural predatory killing occurring in nature, and when people use sophisticated tools and ways to kill animals, which is clearly not a fair play from the animals’ point of view (161). We do not actually need to consume the animal flesh to survive, which makes the big difference between us and the nonhuman predators. This novel, written in the same year as Atwood’s Survival, is in many ways in accordance with the ideas developed in this critical work. In Survival, the author states that animals can never appear in literature in any other than symbolic way (75) and that the writers often identify with these animals’ tragic fates as they perceive also themselves as the victims (79). Both of these claims are incorporated into the story and its human and nonhuman animal victims, and in various forms appear also in other Atwood’s works.
3.2 Symbolic Omission of Animals and Wilderness
Another example of using animals and wilderness solely on a symbolic level is Margaret Atwood’s 1986 dystopian novel The Handmaids Tale. This work is a rarity among her writings, as it almost entirely excludes wilderness and animals from the setting (Roth 166-167). In the novel, Atwood presents an Orwellian society where women serve as mere means to the society’s ends. They are not allowed to read and they are divided into different casts, mainly according to the functionality of their bodies. The images of wilderness and animals in TheHandmaid’s Tale do not occupy a prominent place at first glance. However, under a scrutiny, one can reveal that its prominence within this novel is remarkable mainly for its almost complete and therefore unnatural absence. As Roth points out, Atwood’s incorporation of the wilderness environment into her novels was essential mostly within her first prose works, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), Surfacing (1972) and Survival (1972) (1). However, during the 1980s and the early 1990s, the theme became important again in Atwood’s prose texts, such as The Handmaid’s Tale (1986), Cat’s Eye (1988) or the story collection Wilderness Tips (1991) (Roth 2). The time gap between these two writing periods brought a slight change in the role of the wilderness in Atwood’ novels. Starting with The Handmaid’s Tale, the theme of wilderness is no longer linked to the identity question (Roth 2).
Within the Republic of Gilead (a theocratic military dictatorship formed in place of what used to be the United States of America), the natural environment has been mostly destroyed and no character has any experience of it. As Roth puts it, the only two places that contain some characteristics associated with wilderness are the Commander’s house at night when Offred goes on her secret night walks, and Jezebel’s, the concealed night club that the high officials created for their amusement and go there to enjoy alcohol and illicit sex (167). The women that work in Jezebel’s are dressed up in costumes from the earlier days, some of which imitate wild animals (Atwood, TheHandmaid’s Tale 206). Moira, Offred’s friend, wears a black costume that resembles either a deer or a rabbit, with tail and ears attached to it (211). Overall, the wilderness in The Handmaid’s Tale is present exclusively in an artificial form, which evokes feelings of disconcert and underlines the ruthless environment of the Republic of Gilead.
Another topic, even though not central to the novel, but nevertheless present, is human-animal relationship. Offred mentions that back in her normal life before the system collapsed, she and her family used to be meat-eaters (The Handmaid’s Tale 63). However, the one who used to take care of buying the meat was Luke, the husband, as he claimed that meat is the man’s business, and that men actually need meat more than women (63). This does not seem like a significant remark as it does not really oppose using animal flesh as food, but it is noteworthy in a sense that Atwood brings the issue to the fore at all when the human-animal relationship is discussed only minimally throughout the novel. Before Offred’s life had changed and she lost her family, they had kept a cat. However, when they decided to flee across the border, Offred’s husband Luke offered to kill the cat so that it would not give away their escape. Offred fully understands what he intends to do in the moment he starts referring to the cat by the pronoun “it”. Offred remarks that this is how all killings need to be carried out – you have to dehumanize the animal or person whom you intend to kill, which firstly happens in your mind, and then it is much easier to perform the act in reality (192-3).
These examples seem to encourage the stereotype that men are those who need meat and who kill the animals, while women are those who rather protect and sympathize with animals. Often, as Maria Moss remarks, in Atwood’s narratives “the cruelty towards animals is mirrored with cruelty towards women” (132). In many of Atwood’s novels, and as already mentioned in the discussion of Surfacing, Atwood tends to depict men as aggressors, hunters or killers of animals, and also meat-eaters, while women are generally the ones to question the rightness of such actions. In a similar tone, Atwood delineates the male and female characters in the MaddAddam trilogy, where the female protagonists, such as Oryx or Ren, are more compassionate towards animals and refuse to eat meat, while the male characters, such as Jimmy or Zeb, are not restrained in this way. Nevertheless, Atwood is not the only contemporary Canadian author to contemplate the gendered nature of killing and eating animals. Timothy Findley also ruminates about this phenomenon in the novels Wars (1977) and Not Wanted on the Voyage (1984), both discussed later.
In her hopelessness, Offred feels like an animal in captivity. She longs for any way to fill the endless time when having nothing to do. She envies the pigs in the pens who could at least liven up their lives by playing with the special balls invented in the nineteen-eighties (The Handmaid’s Tale 69). She understands why the caged rats feel the need to give themselves electric shocks only because of boredom (70). Because of the situation Offred finds herself in, she can identify with the captured animals. The only place where fish can be bred are the fish farms. Elsewhere in the novel, it is mentioned that the fish farms already had to be closed, because the fish are all extinct (164). Here it is up to speculation why the fish actually died out, if they were fished out or the pollution of the water became fatal for them. Nevertheless, with the still-increasing amount of dead zones in the ocean caused by pollution originated mainly in human activities, it is a dire ecological warning with a present-day accuracy, and another example of Atwood’s masterful incorporation of her long-term concern about environmental issues in Canada into her fiction. The wilderness and animals exist only in the memories of the people, and in an artificial form, which is a foreshadowing of the possible future if the humankind does not stop its exploitative habits toward nature.