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Wilderness and the Natural Environment: Margaret Atwood's Recycling of a Canadian Theme.

Wilderness and the Natural Environment: Margaret Atwood's Recycling of
a Canadian Theme. By Verena Bu hler Roth. (Swiss Studies in English, 124)
Tubingen and Basel: Francke. 1998. viii +206 pp. DM 68.

Wilderness, once the literary emblem of Canada's distinctive national identity, has disappeared from Margaret Atwood's novels of the 1990s, The Robber Bride and Alias Grace. However, 'nothing has happened, really, that hasn't happened before' as Atwood remarked in her short story 'Wilderness Tips' and as Verena Buhler Roth shows in her investigation of the return of the wilderness motif in Atwood's fiction from the mid 1980s to the early 1990s after an absence of over ten years. Her argument is that this is a recyclable theme and that Atwood's emphases have shifted between 1970 and 1990 so that her representations of wilderness in The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, and Wilderness Tips outline a different agenda and indeed signal some serious late-twentieth-century anxieties about Canadian identity, gender issues, and ecological crises. Roth's focus is on textual representations of wilderness as literary space and on Atwood's revisions of the conventions of popular romance, pastoral, Gothic, and classical myth, so that Canadian 'home ground' begins to look like 'foreign territory' as wilderness recedes into the spaces of a vanished past.

In her opening chapters Roth goes over familiar ground as she retraces the traditions of English Canadian literary history and critical responses to Atwood's early writing, and it is in the central chapters on the later wilderness writing that the strength of this study lies. Roth works retrospectively, starting from the short story collection Wilderness Tips (1991) as the crucial point of collapse where the forest landscape 'tips' or slips from its status as Canada's defining cultural myth. Looking back to the autobiographical fiction Cat's Eye (1988), she traces signs of a movement away from the northern wilderness as the geographical place of the narrator's childhood to the urban environments of adolescence and adulthood, where wilderness becomes fragmented or metamorphosed into the spaces of memory or painting, and where Toronto itself becomes a haunted urban wilderness. Back one stage further to The Handmaid's Tale (1985), the natural environment has virtually disappeared in the American dystopia of Gilead, itself the consequence of ecological catastrophe. As Roth shows convincingly, in this environment where flowers are most often 'dried, printed, painted or embroidered' (p. 160), the only natural sites left to be managed by the totalitarian regime are women's bodies, where the potentially fertile Handmaids are 'a national resource'. Oddly, Roth does not mention the wilderness spaces on the border between America and Canada that constitute dangerous territory for would-be escapees like the narrator, nor does she specify the location of Nunavit in the Historical Notes at the end, which is clearly a reference to the newly constituted Native territory of Nunavut in Arctic Canada and where wilderness still exists. Roth's consistent emphasis on spatial concepts and related theories of the representation of space-time through narratives of memory and fantasy offer significant insights not only into Atwood's recycling of the wilderness theme but also, and perhaps more importantly, into her constructions of female narrating subjects with their distinctive double vision.

This is a persuasive study which with its close textual and intertextual analyses of a group of Atwood's fictions would be very useful for student readers. However, Roth's wilderness argument does not look as new as she claims. Unfortunately for her, between the time when her thesis was written and the publication of this monograph, several studies of the topic of wilderness have appeared (Coral Ann Howells, Margaret Atwood (London: Macmillan, 1996), and W. H. New, Land Sliding: Imagining Space, Presence, and Power in Canadian Writing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997)).
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Author:Howells, Coral Ann
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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