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Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature by Margaret Atwood


Margaret Atwood’s first nonfiction novel was published in 1972 by House of Anansi Press. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature caused quite an uproar. It came out at a time when there was little to no attention paid to Canadian writers and many people didn’t believe or just never thought there was Canadian literature. Many writers were leaving the country in order to make a living writing because if it came from Canada it was seen as second rate.


Atwood used Canadian literature that was familiar to her to analyse what themes were common and how those themes were used to make Canadian literature distinct from other literature. This allows the reader to learn what writers were influencing Atwood up until the early 70's and gives the reader tools to analyse Canadian literature in a more specific way.


One of the principles in Survival is that literature has something to do with the people who create it, and that the people who create it have something to do with where they live. The fact that this book became a bestseller was shocking at the time because Canadian literature wasn't thought of as existing and to say that it could be interesting was unheard of. This is probably not so surprising to us now. I liken it to the need for diversity. People want to see themselves represented in literature, films, and tv as they should. I think this was a desire that many Canadians had even if they weren’t able to articulate it. This novel gave them a new perspective of themselves as Canadians. It was something that gave them sustenance and they didn’t even know they were hungry.

Atwood says that literature is not only a mirror, but it’s also a map, a geography of the mind.


Atwood chose themes which she calls Key patterns she found in Canadian and French Canadian literature that make it distinct from other literature. The first is: SURVIVAL which Atwood says is the central symbol. She distinguishes between Bare Survival which would be because of our weather; or survival of a crisis or disaster, and Grim Survival which could be cultural survival. Atwood says that although we see this as a theme in American and English literature, it is distinct because for American literature survival is about the adventure or sense of danger. For English literature it is a sense of security, everything in its place, but for Canadian literature it is intolerable anxiety.


Chapter Two, Three and Four deal with the patterns Canadian Literature has made of what white people have found when they arrived here: the land, the animals and indigenous peoples. Chapter two focuses on nature and looks at the types of landscapes we see in Canadian literature and the kinds of attitude they mirror. Two ideas came out of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century. It went from cities are bad and nature is good to nature is like a mother nurturing and guiding us as long as we listened to it. Most often these attitudes and reality clashed. She also talks about a shift from the attitude of nature has always been violent and humans must fight against it, to humans fighting against nature is actually harming nature.


Chapter three is called Animal Victims and Atwood says if you are looking for something truly distinctive in Canadian Literature this might be the place to start. Although nature might be the monster in Canadian literature It is not typical for Canadian literature to have animals as the monster. Again, Atwood does a comparison: English literature has animals: she gives the examples of Wind in the Willows, Jungle Book, and Beatrice Potter’s Tales. English animals are about social relations. American literature has animals too minus the clothes and the ability to speak. They are hunting stories and the focus is the hunter. She gives a number of examples like the whale in Moby Dick and the Bear in Faulkner’s The Bear. They are quest stories usually successful from the hunter’s point of view. American animal stories are about people killing animals. Atwood says that animal stories are a genre in Canadian literature. Canadian stories are about the animal being killed, as felt emotionally from inside the fur and feathers. The animal is always the victim whether their end comes from another animal or humans.


Chapter Four is about first people. It shows a shift that started to happen. Atwood recognizes that until very recently, which is to say the early 70’s, Indigenous Peoples and Eskimos made their only appearances in Canadian literature through white writers. I think that this has so much to do with the identity of Canadians and it has contributed to harming so many indigenous people’s living in Canada. Atwood talks about a dual literary tradition existing. It is Victor or Victim - She says Indigenous Peoples as Victors is not about them being evil but about them torturing and killing white people that the author identifies with. As Victims it is not about them being superior but that they are being persecuted. Canadian literature focuses on the relative places of Indigenous Peoples and Whites on the aggression-suffering scale.


Atwood turns to explorers and settlers. She explains that sometimes we need to look at our past to understand our present or at least to understand how we arrived at the present. Writers will look to the explorers and settlers even if its just to use as metaphors. Using metaphors is not unique, but what Canadian writers use as metaphors would be unique. If literature is going to send someone out on a quest or adventure in Canada, then it needs to deal with the Canadian landscape - mountains, forests, great lakes, oceans, rivers. Atwood takes a guess and says that Canadian literature has two types of Explorer themes: one is an exploration that doesn’t find anything and the other is doomed exploration where the explorers find death. Canada’s settlers are different than America’s. Canada never had a wild west, Atwood says it’s because the Mounties got there first. The west or wilderness is in Canadian literature but more as a place to find exile, rather than to overcome it. There’s no outlaws or lawless men for Canada.


From Explorers and Settlers Atwood then moves to the societies after exploration and settlement. Here she talks about the families. Now obviously families are written about in probably all literature. Again she distinguishes how we see families in Canadian literature. There is a three generation pattern that has negative and positive qualities. One of the positives is SURVIVAL. These generations are the rigid grandparents, the gray parents and the children who try to escape the older generations.


The next theme Atwood talks about is the reluctant immigrant. American literature also has examples of an Immigrant novel, but to a lesser extent and with particular differences. Atwood points out that the difference is in the outcome. This is the melting pot and mosaic difference we often talk about.


The theme of heroes is also different in Canadian literature. Atwood says that we will have a hard time finding “A Great Man” type of hero in Canadian literature.


The next theme Atwood talks about is that of Artist. I mentioned earlier that many writers in the 60’s -70’s sometimes chose to leave Canada to become successful. Here Atwood talks about that a bit more. Atwood says that most Canadian artists are in that third generation of the family pattern and they used their artistry as a means of escape. Atwood looks at what happens to them and why? In Canada, a lot of the tension was between the artist and the audience. Atwood says the artist either gave up or left the country. Atwood offers a third option, which she claims to be seeing in the early 70’s and that is a change in audience within Canada.


Next Atwood makes an interesting observation about women in Canadian literature. She points out that they are all old! Atwood gives a couple of reasons why this might be the case. There are many woman/nature metaphors in Canadian literature sometimes she is rock and sometimes she is ice.


Atwood takes an entire chapter to talk about the difference between Canadian literature and French-Canadian literature. I’m so glad that she did because I don’t know much about Quebec’s literature at all and I would have to read it translated so there would be some things lost in translation. Some of the differences Atwood bring up are: Both Quebec literature and English Canadian literature have religious imagery but it is used differently. We’ve already talked about the theme of survival but for Quebec literature this includes cultural and religious survival as well. Two other themes Atwood brings up which I found a little surprising were: the theme of thwarted incest and the theme of total entrapment.


In the final chapter, Atwood emphasizes a few of her points about Canadian literature that I think are important.

1. There is a difference between Canadian literature and Canadian content.

2. Canadian literature does not exclude universals, but the attitudes to the subject matter, and through the attitudes the kinds of images and the outcomes of stories are what sets it apart.


The book suggested tons of authors and books. Some I was aware of like Farley Mowat and Magaret Lawrence, but there are many I wasn’t familiar with so it's also a great resource for more Canadian literature as well as a way of analyzing it.


Bookworm Rating: 🐛🐛🐛🐛🐛





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