Negotiating the Wilderness: The Feminist Potential of Narrative in Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips

Wilderness is a central cultural myth in Canada, pointing not only to the vast tracts of uninhabited land that its geography contains, but also to its history of colonization. Mapping out Canada’s wilderness has been a main concern with Canadian writers. Most ‘wilderness’ books are written by males, explicating ways to tame or conquer the wilderness. The issue of surviving the Canadian wilderness was seen as central to defining what the country stood for. Wilderness is a central theme for Margaret Atwood, arguably Canada’s most celebrated modern writer. As a contemporary writer and as a woman, wilderness acquires different connotations for Atwood. She tries to revise and reinvent the idea of wilderness in a time when Canadians have survived the hostile geography, and now has to explore the wilderness that is everyday life. The way Atwood redefines wilderness to still be relevant as a Canadian cultural myth has been explored by many critics. In this paper, I would like to concentrate on wilderness as central in Atwood’s short story collection Wilderness Tips. I would like to explore wilderness as a feminist metaphor. Atwood in her sensational anthology of Canadian literature, Survival: a Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature talks about three kinds of victimhood, before suggesting that there is a fourth alternative: “be a creative non victim” (qtd. in Piercy 41). It is this idea of survival that Atwood propounds in Wilderness Tips.

This paper will explore the concept of wilderness not in the literal sense of the term, but with regard to two ideas associated with it in Atwood’s work. In the first, wilderness is a space constructed by men into which women are trapped as the other. In this case, wilderness is imaginary and the whole idea needs to be dismantled. The other sense of wilderness is as real space occupied by both men and women, which women aren’t able to negotiate properly because of boundaries placed by men, which women need to overcome by creating their own narratives.

As women have been told over centuries by men on what is right and wrong, they have become unable to connect with their inner selves, trapping them in a wilderness that they cannot negotiate. Here, survival becomes an important theme as the women in Wilderness Tips try to negotiate the wilderness. The guide books written by men serve as inadequate indicators to understand themselves. Margaret Atwood’s narrative techniques show that women can survive the wilderness by articulating their experiences, or by transforming their experiences into a narrative, so as to regain control of their lives.

In masculine discourse, wilderness implies an unknown that has to be colonized and subdued. It represents a darkness that has to be enlightened by man’s reason and order. The idea of wilderness has been used to justify the control of one group over the other, mostly male over female and colonizer over natives, and to define the dominant group in opposition to “the other”. The usage of wilderness in this way fits into a larger pattern of domination and submission, one in which,

“Language and culture play a crucial part in reproducing the unequal relations between men and women. Patriarchal power pervades verbal and visual systems of meaning. Within such systems, woman is always connected to and inseparable from man. Men’s ability to symbolize the universal, the absolute and the transcendental depends on the continuing association of femaleness with difference, otherness, and inferiority”.

(Felski 38).

In Wilderness Tips, we see both men and women reproducing “verbal and visual systems of meaning” of patriarchy. Confined to well defined roles, they re-enact codes of behaviour and thinking blindly, as Donny in ‘True Trash’, who does not feel aroused by the girls in swimsuit he is spying on, but feels obligated to pretend to be attracted as that is what is expected of him: “Donny would like to know what they’re reading with such absorption, such relish, but it would be dangerous for him to admit it. It’s their bodies that count” (Atwood 4). Jane’s mother in ‘The Age of Lead’ is trapped by the linear script of “babies and marriage, in that order” (Atwood 75) and the fleeting nature of youth, which ends with sex and pregnancy, that she misses out on warning her daughter that there are other ways of getting hurt, however much she avoids babies and marriage. Susanna as a little girl realizes that “she could do whatever she liked, and still be cute as a button” (Atwood 63). When later in life she finds that men aren’t automatically pleased by everything she does or automatically likes her, she questions her entire life and identity. The role of the submissive woman is imposed upon each of the protagonists, and characters like Susanna and Portia in ‘Wilderness Tips’ shape their lives to fit into men’s expectations from them.  When a woman cannot be this, she is “unable to turn outward in a society that perpetuates the ideal of a submissive female”, and “turn inward to their bodies as shields or ploys. Each has learned that a woman is a commodity, valued only for her appearance” (Goldblatt 278). The protagonist of ‘Hairball’ transforms herself from Katherine to Kathy to Kath and finally to Kat, perfecting a look of “aloof inner authority” (Atwood 20) to sell her product, a magazine. The protagonist of ‘Weight’ has repeated affairs, preferring to stay in control of a short term relationship rather than suffer the fate of her friend, Molly. Within a structure where a man is defined by what a woman is not, both sexes are seen to suffer, unable to connect with themselves or have meaningful relationships with each other.  As is usual, it is the oppressed group which suffers more than the oppressors.

Atwood’s protagonists in Wilderness Tips are trapped in a confusing wilderness which is increasingly difficult to navigate. As the women begin to realize that traditional feminine roles are insufficient to deal with the complexities of life, they become increasingly disillusioned. The magazine stories that the girls read in ‘True Trash’ are met with disbelief and laughter: the girls reject the neat chronology of youth, love, marriage and sex because they realize that life is never that neat. Yet, Joanne feels that she is deprived of something because she will never have the happy ever after ending that these stories offer.  Jane in ‘The age of Lead’ and Kat in ‘Hairball’ avoid the conventional roles of wives and mothers, but find themselves questioning life and their identity in a world which does not have a place for an autonomous woman. Others, like Portia in ‘Wilderness Tips’ and Julie in ‘The Bog Man’ try to play their roles as faithful wife and youthful mistress according to the expectations of the men in their lives, but are left feeling lost and unhappy. Similar to how Lois in ‘Death by Landscape’ and Portia’s brother, Roland in ‘Wilderness Tips’ realize that guides about survival cannot prepare you for the wilderness, the women in Wilderness Tips realize that they will never be able to explore the wilderness within them – all of their organic and creative potential – when they are trapped in the wilderness which patriarchy has decreed as the norm.  Here, Margaret Atwood’s narrative techniques offer a way out for her protagonists.

Over the years, there has been a feminist move to rewrite older myths, and rework traditional genres, so as to “dismantle the stranglehold of patriarchal myth and to create woman focussed words, images and tales” (Sellers 188). This is an essential project for feminism as patriarchy sees its practices as natural, cemented through time by the retelling of stories and myths. When feminists rewrite already established myths and rewrite genres, they point to the fact that these myths and genres aren’t natural at all but constructs to retain power in the hands of the oppressor. Through a de-naturalizing of the myths of patriarchy, feminism signifies that patriarchy as a whole is also an artificial construct. In Wilderness Tips, Atwood reconfigures traditional genres and myths to enter into male territory. Deborah Raschke argues how the paintings Lois collects in ‘Death by Landscape’ play a pivotal role in framing the tale. These landscape sketches are by an all male Canadian painters group, called the Group of Seven. Their representations were a means to put Canada on the cultural map, as a distinct and unique place. However, their representations of northern Canada as wild, virile, deserted and dangerous is overtly masculine. (Raschke 68-70). Their representation of wilderness is anti-colonial in its rejection of European influence, while at the same time colonial in the notion of the male pioneer exploring virgin territory, territory which had been for centuries occupied by natives. When Lois and Lucy as adolescents attend Camp Manitou, they are taught to pretend to be Indians, exploring the wilderness. They take part in outdoor games, encouraged to be boisterous, and as their final test go canoeing with stops at deserted islands. The camp itself recognizes that the girls are transgressing: these traditionally male activities are only indulged in during the summer break, and before the girls become adults. In writing such a story where a holiday misadventure defines a woman’s life, Atwood is moving into a strictly male occupied genre of writing. In Lois, we see a woman’s attempt to negotiate with a man’s world. She transforms the paintings by the Group of Seven and similar artists by envisioning Lucy as still alive in each one of them. Thus, the paintings are transformed not represent the idea of a masculine wilderness, but Lucy’s presence.

Atwood reconfigures myths in ‘Hairball’ as well. Yael Shapira argues that the story is written in the technique of a grotesque narrative, which is traditionally a “longstanding narrative formula that joins the “grotesque” female body to a story of women’s misconduct to produce a cautionary tale about the dangers of female transgression” (Shapira 52). In such tales, the woman who flouts societal norms has a gross, porous and metamorphosing body, while the virtuous woman’s body is contained and productive. ‘Hairball’ seems to be following the condemnation underlining the grotesque narrative when Cheryl, Ger’s wife, has recently delivered a baby, while Kat has an ovarian cyst which resembles a hairball removed. However, the grotesque hairball is transformative in Kat’s life. Having so far severely fashioned her body and her self to market her magazine, the hairball is a reminder to acknowledge the wilderness within her. Her hairball finally allows her to acknowledge and accept that there are things she cannot control. Her scandalous gift to Ger at the end is a release of all the rage and disappointment she had repressed so far to survive. She is finally able to feel “light and peaceful and filled with charity, and temporarily without a name” (Atwood 26).

Atwood also dismisses the notion of time as linear in her works, a move to break away from the chronology of birth, youth, marriage, children and death that is seen as the inevitable pattern of a woman’s life. Aritha van Herk remarks that “there is always a continuous present that is also discontinuous” (Herk 928) about another of Atwood’s short story collection, Bluebeard’s Egg.  This is true of Wilderness Tips as well. Most of the stories are told retrospectively: the effortless way in which the past seeps into the present shows how previous experiences always inform the present moment. When Atwood’s protagonists retell their stories or have their past turned into a narrative, they can escape the linear progression of time which leads them invariably to predictability and obscurity. A linear narrative also corresponds to universality and sameness. When Atwood employs circular or cyclical time, she is drawing attention to everything that a linear narrative ignores. Through repetition of symbols and the recurrence of the past in the present, she creates an alternative narrative. The ovarian cyst in ‘Hairball’, the paintings in ‘Death by Landscape’, the uncles watching Susanna’s recital in ‘Uncles’, the bog man uncovered in ‘Age of Lead’ all point towards the pivotal role certain incidents, people or objects play in a person’s life. Atwood centres her story on such a central point, with the life of the protagonist wrapped in successive layers around this.

The linear idea of time is also a universal one, suggesting that all women will invariably have the same descent into monotony and then obscurity. Atwood dismantles this notion of sameness. None of her characters have similar stories, or follow the same linear progression in life. She rejects the concept of a universal Woman as opposed to a universal Man, both of which are essentialist and patriarchal constructs. As she herself puts it, “As for Woman, capital W, we got stuck with that for centuries. Eternal Woman, But really, ‘Woman’ is the sum total of women. It doesn’t exist apart from that, except as an abstracted idea” (Ingersoll 201). In Wilderness Tips, each of the characters is different from each other, negotiating life and seeing things in their own subjective terms. Their intense subjectivity, which Atwood condenses in her short stories, is probably what makes these characters so nuanced and unforgettable.

It is the rejection of a linear narrative that allows Atwood’s protagonists from being passive victims. Portia’s realization at the end of ‘Wilderness Tips’, that “nothing has happened, really, that hasn’t happened before” allows her to survive. The most powerful effect of Atwood’s narrative techniques is within the interiority of protagonists. It is when they begin to narrate their experiences, or form a narrative of their past to shape their present that they are able to break free from the “verbal and visual systems of meaning” that patriarchy imposes on them. They are able to connect with their bodies and revisit past sites of pain and trauma when they employ their own vocabulary to make sense of the wilderness that their life is, that their minds and bodies are. Once they embrace the disorder and wilderness that is everyday reality, a coherent narrative of their lives enables them to understand their selves better. Julie begins her story by declaring how she “broke up with Connor in the middle of a swamp” (Atwood 39) in ‘The Bog Man’, the reader is made aware of how many revisions that opening statement has undergone. By telling and retelling stories of their survival, they can define their present and shape their future, claiming an agency which is otherwise denied to them.

However much Atwood is reluctant about her work being termed feminist, the agency she provides her protagonists leaves her work a rich minefield for feminist analysis. Atwood’s rejection of the label feminism is not, it should be noted, a dismissal of the principles that feminism propagates, but a rejection of a single way of reading her work. Atwood’s works urge us to see things from multiple perspectives. When Atwood sees everyday objects and situations in ways we don’t ordinarily do, she invites us to read her text actively, with the willingness to be surprised and startled. The beauty of Wilderness Tips lies in its open ended stories, forcing us not to form any fixed conclusion and prompting multiple interpretations. While all of Atwood’s works are definitely feminist, their aesthetic experience cannot be subordinated to support any one ideological goal. The fact that Wilderness Tips speaks in a polyphonic voice invites a more active feminist reading. When the open ended nature of the stories leave it open to multiple interpretations, what does it say about the feminist awakening the protagonists have undergone? What comment does it make on their survival? Probably the answer lies in the similarity between the best of feminism and the best of fiction: that it always allows for multiple and dissident voices and ways of seeing.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Wilderness Tips. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Print.

Felski, Rita. Extract from Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodernist Culture. Eagleton, Mary. Ed. Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2011. Print.

Goldblatt, Patricia F. ‘Reconstructing Margaret Atwood’s Protagonists’. World Literature Today. Vol. 73, No. 2. (Spring 199). Pp 275-182. . Web. Accessed: 16 March 2016.

Herk, Aritha van. ‘Scant Articulations of Time’. University of Toronto Quarterly. Vol. 68, No. 4 (Fall 1999). Pp. 925-938. Web. Accessed: 16 March 2016.

Ingersoll, Earl E. Margaret Atwood: Conversations. London: Virago, 1992. Print.

Piercy, Marge. ‘Margaret Atwood: Beyond Victimhood’. The American Poetry Review. Vol. 2, No. 6 (Nov/Dec 19730. Pp. 41-44. Web. Accessed: 16 March 2016.

Raschke, Deborah. ‘Framed Identity: Finding Lucy in Atwood’s “Death by Landscape”’. Mosaic: A Journal for the Independent Study of Literature. Vol. 45, No. 3 (September 2012). Pp. 65-80. Web. Accessed: 16 March 2016

Sellers, Susan. Extract from Myth and Fairytale in Contemporary Women’s Fiction. Eagleton, Mary. Ed. Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader. UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2011. Print.

Shapira, Yael. ‘Hairball Speaks: Margaret Atwood and the Narrative Legacy of the Female Grotesque’. Narrative. Vol. 18, No. 1 (January 2010). Pp. 51-72. Web. Accessed: 16 March 2016.


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