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Image et Récit

Héliane Ventura
Simone Vauthier
Jean-Michel Lacroix

I. Les mots et la peinture

Art Objects as Supplements to Language in Margaret Atwood's Wilderness Tips

Frank Davey


Les peintures d'Elaine Risley dans le roman de Margaret Atwood Cat’s Eye et les objets d'art que l'on trouve dans les récits de Wilderness Tips fonctionnent comme des suppléments de langage et des représentations idéologiques du mystère et des choses indicibles. Chacun de ces objets véhicule des significations révélées. Le texte dépeint les personnages qui lisent ces objets comme anagogiques avec moins d'ironie qu'il ne dépeint ceux qui les lisent comme de simples objets. Ce contraste implique une péjoration de l’intervention sociale et une affirmation de la connaissance transcendentale.

Texte intégral

1EVER SINCE Marian McAlpin baked her 'edible woman' cake and insisted to her roommate Ainsley that it was "only a cake" (The Edible Woman 273), Margaret Atwood's fiction has presented a troubled relationship between the art objects characters may construct or encounter and the words they are willing to attach to them. Throughout The Edible Woman visual images — Peter's camera, the steak he and Marian order at the restaurant, the awkwardly shaped bodies of the Marian's female co-workers — are presented as sites of recognition that surpass Marian’s ability to cognitively understand or verbalize. She is portrayed as responding to these images without understanding why she is responding, and often as frightened by this response. Perhaps it is not surprising that by the end of the novel she may partly wish that her cake — despite its human shape — signify no more than 'cake.'

2Such an understanding of the visual image as able to carry meanings and motivating force that transcend human cognitive and linguistic power has a long history in Western epistemology, extending back at least to the rhetoric of Plato's allegory of the cave. It is pervasive in Christian history, beginning with the mysteries of the crucifixion and the mass, and being a recurrent part of Christian discourse, as in the Middle English Cloud of Unknowing with its separation of the worshipper and God, or in the teachings of alchemy that the transmutation of metals enacts the mysterium conjunctionis of Christ's incarnation. In Christianity this view of the visual object is related to an exegetical vision of the material world; objects carry not explicit meaning but allegorical or anagogical meaning. It has particular power in Romantic literature, not only in the construction of powerful and mysterious symbols — the albatross of the ancient mariner, the castle and barge of the Lady of Shalott, the swans of Baudelaire and Mallarmé — and in character motivation in novelists like Scott and the Brontës, but also, as Jerome McGann has argued, in the rationalizing of deficits in social and political action as being inevitable elements in transcendent patterns intuitable only by poets and painters.

3Margaret Atwood's most extensive portrayal of a visual artist is in Cat's Eye where the first-person narrator is the relatively successful Canadian painter Elaine Risley. The stages by which Risley is depicted as moving toward success as a painter each involve a romantic epiphany, a moment in which a mundane event mysteriously yields unexpected meaning. In each case, the emergence of meaning from ordinary objects is accompanied by marks of passivity in the young Elaine. The first epiphany occurs when she is ten, and schoolfriends who for several years have persecuted and intimidated her cause her to fall through ice at the bottom of a deep ravine. Lying almost comatose in the snow, she imagines that the Virgin Mary is appearing on the bridge above her and telling her "It will be all right. Go home" (189). The construction of the epiphany as something that extends a visual phenomenon is implicit in the depiction of the Virgin as emerging from the structure of the bridge — "moving through the railing, or melting into it". The second epiphany occurs during her Grade Thirteen Botany examination, as Elaine contemplates the technical drawing she is creating.

[I]n the middle of the Botany examination it comes to me, like a sudden epileptic fit, that I’m not going to be a biologist, as I have thought. I am going to be a painter. I look at the page, where the life cycle of the mushroom from spore to fruiting body is taking shape, and I know this with absolute certainty (255).

4The allegorical shape of this epiphany — "I am going to be a painter" — is hinted at both in the task of visual representation in which Elaine is engaged and in this representation's metamorphic narrative, "from spore to fruiting body". The third epiphany occurs when she begins, without evident conscious intention, to create the first of the paintings which will establish her career, paintings of domestic objects and of adults she knew as a child.

I know these things must be memories, but they do not have the quality of memories. They are not hazy around the edges, but sharp and clear. They arrive detached from any context; they are simply there, in isolation, as an object glimpsed on the Street is there.
I have no image of myself in relation to them.
I paint Mrs. Smeath. She floats up without warning, like a dead fish, materializing on a sofa I am draw- ing.
One picture of Mrs. Smeath leads to another. She multiplies on the walls like bacteria, standing, sitting, flying, with clothes, without clothes, following me around with her many eyes... (338).

5In each of these Elaine is constructed as viewing herself as weak, and what she experiences as involuntary. In the bridge episode, she is about to surrender to the intense cold; at the Botany examination, understanding that she will be a painter "comes to" her "like a sudden epileptic fit"; in the painting scene, Mrs. Smeath comes "without warning" and multiplies "like bacteria".

6Whenever the novel presents a middle-aged Elaine Risley looking back at her paintings, it shows her regarding most of them as having originated in mystery or confusion but also as having become somewhat more meaningful or explicable to her as time has passed. Of a painting she entitled "Falling Women," she comments that "a lot of my paintings then began in my confusion over words." When she attempts to 'read' the paintings, the novel has her for the most part resist extensive interpretation and summarize their material features, arrangements of visual signs on canvas. In the case of "Falling Women" she comments "Fallen women were not pulled-down women or pushed women, merely fallen.”

Falling Women showed the women, three of them falling as if by accident off a bridge, their skirts opened into bells by the wind, their hair streaming upwards. Down they fell, onto the men who were lying unseen, jagged and dark and without volition, far below (268).

7When shown looking at a retrospective exhibition of her paintings, she reads the older ones -- particularly the ones of Mrs Smeath — as if she were discovering allegorical meanings there for the first time.

I used to think these were self-righteous eyes, piggy and smug inside their wire frames; and they are. But they are also defeated eyes, uncertain and melancholy, heavy with unloved duty. The eyes of someone for whom God was a sadistic old man; the eyes of a small-town threadbare decency (405).

8Only two of the four most recent ones does she discuss in a discourse of intention rather than discovery, and even here she leaves the intentions vaguely phrased and the specific visual signs of the paintings unread. Of a painting of three adults who were kind to her in her childhood, she says "Why shouldn't I reward them, if I feel like it? Play God, translate them into glory, in the afterlife of paint?" Of another, "One Wing," she says "I painted it for my brother, after his death". "This is the kind of thing we do, to assuage pain". The two others, however, "Cat's Eye" and "Unified Field Theory" (a painting of the Virgin on the bridge) she again describes only as arrangements of visual signs.

9All of these episodes and interpretations are, of course, framed, and to some extent ironized, by Risley's narrative of her life and by the reader's understanding of it. When Risley claims she doesn't know where the early paintings came from, the reader is able to hypothesize not only the source of the images but Risley's motivation’s for painting them. When Risley describes the figures and images, the reader can link these to similar figures and images Risley has narrated in her autobiography. Moreover, the reader can take a further step back and examine Risley herself as a fictional construction, and compare this construction both to other Atwood characterizations and to the textualized public narrative of the life of the novel's signator, Margaret Atwood, with whom Risley shares an entomologist father, eccentric mother, a pre-school life in Northern Ontario, and teenage years in suburban Toronto. That is, the novel invites a reader to view Risley's paintings as existing in a similar relation to Risley as Cat's Eye and other Atwood texts exist to the historical Margaret Atwood. But nothing in the novel ironizes Risley's ideological belief that surprising things may come to people who wait, or that artistic images are revealed rather than created. In fact the characters in the novel who attempt to intervene in the world — whether these be the children who intervene in Elaine's life, painters like her ex-husband Jon who deliberately adopt socially 'relevant' styles, feminists who organize to bring about social change, or her brother who travels the globe in order to expand scientific knowledge — are all portrayed as acting in vain. The feminists, in fact, are tellingly constructed by both Risley and the novel as overzealously and aggressively interventionist — "they have a certain way they want me to be, and I am not that way. They want to improve me," Risley complains. They are made by the novel to resemble not only the three girls who violently interfered in her childhood, but also—with considerable irony -- "troops go[ing] boyishly off to war, singing brave songs" (379).

10In Atwood's most recent story collection, Wilderness Tips, although none of the characters are visual artists, at least six of the ten stories are structured around paintings or similar visual objects or constructions. As in The Edible Woman and Cat's Eye, these constructions act as alternatives or supplements to both cognition and language, and frequently as ideological figurations of mystery and unsayability. These objects range from a tumour surgically removed from the focalizing character of the story "Hairball," to Group of Seven paintings collected by the focalizing character of "Death by Landscape," and include an imaginary Byzantine ikon in "Bog Man," the television image of a frozen body in "The Age of Lead," a photograph of a man killed in World War II in "Uncles," and the self-construction through costume and rhetoric of young woman poet in "Isis in Darkness."

11Each of these objects is presented as being mysterious, as having for the characters that encounter it an instructive and illuminating function far beyond that of words. In the final paragraph of "Uncles," for example, the military photograph of Susanna's father, killed just after her birth during World War II, a photograph previously inscrutable to her, is shown wordlessly revealing to her the anger numerous men may have harboured toward her throughout her life as she has made her way by charm and vivacity to success as a journalist. In "The Age of Lead," the visual sign that is deployed is the televised image of the frozen body of a dead sailor from Sir John Franklin's final Arctic expedition, a sailor apparently weakened, like other members of that expedition, from poisoning by the lead solder of the nineteenth century's first tinned provisions. The story has the image of the sailor's body reveal to Jane, its focalizing character, the impossibility of living, as she had hoped to live, a life "without consequences" (167), in a world in which the multiplying 'consequences' of technology inevitably surround and assail her. In this story's somewhat epiphanic final paragraph, the dead sailor's image is shown further leading her to view the discarded "drinking cups, crumpled soft-drink cans, used take-out plates" left each night on the sidewalk outside her house as allegorical and apocalyptic iterations of the trail of useless objects left on the permafrost by the last of Franklin's crewmen when, deranged by lead-poisoning, they fled to their deaths beside the Back River.

12Among the more explicit of the Wilderness Tips stories in positing a transcendent non-linguistic meaning latent within art objects are "Hairball", "Isis in Darkness," and "Death by Landscape", two of which involve characters who, although they work with words, lose confidence in them. "Hairball" presents the almost-young woman Kat, who has worked her way to a position of editorial power in lifestyle publishing. The story opens just after Kat has had a benign ovarian tumour removed, and decided to take it home to display on her mantel. Like Elaine Risley discussing her paintings, Kat is depicted by Atwood's fiction as envisioning rather than interpreting this tumour:

The hair in it was red — long strands of it wound round and round inside, like a ball of wet wool gone berserk or like the guck you pulled out of a clogged bathroom-sink drain. There were little bones in it too, or fragments of bone; bird bones, the bones of a sparrow crushed by a car. There was scattering of nails, toe or finger. There were five perfectly formed teeth (42).

13The story has her name the tumour 'hairball,' ostensibly oblivious to the pun she is making on her own name, and begin to associate it consciously with wordless knowledge. That is, it has her display a blindness to words at the same time as it has her begin to prefer anagogic communication to verbal communication. The narrator comments:

Hairball speaks to her, without words. It is irreducible, it has the texture of reality, it is not an image. What it tells her is everything she'd never wanted to hear about herself. This is new knowledge, dark and precious and necessary. It cuts (54).

14Then when she learns that she is about to be fired from her job — that her lover and supervisor is about to replace her with himself — the story has her impulsively pack 'Hairball' with a selection of truffles in a chocolate box and send it by courier it to him and his wife who are hosting a cocktail party. Her packing of the tumour is presented by the story as an act of art-construction:

... she takes Hairball out of its bottle. She drains it in the kitchen strainer and pats it damp-dry, tenderly with paper towels. She sprinkles it with powdered cocoa, which forms a brown pastry crust. It still smells like formaldehyde, so she wraps it in Saran Wrap and then in tinfoil, and then in pink tissue paper, which she ties with a mauve bow. She places it in the David Wood box in a bed of shredded tissue, with the truffles nested around (55).

15The tumour is presumably to speak, in lieu of Kat's own voice, to her lover and his wife in the same "wordless" voice and "dark" knowledge that it spoke to her.

  • 1 The portrayal of Selena bears a considerable resemblance to the public career of poet Gwendolyn Ma (...)

16The story "Isis in Darkness" is constructed around a contrast between its focalizing character Richard, a middle-aged man who is both a failed academic and failed poet (failures that again direct the story toward the inadequacies of words) and a mysterious young woman who seems believed, by both Richard and the narrator, to write extraordinary poetry1. While a young man at the University of Toronto in the 1960s, and hopeful of a career as a poet, Richard had gone regularly to the city's most celebrated counter-culture cafe, The Bohemian Embassy, to listen to jazz and read to small audiences his laboriously written sestinas, anti-sonnets, and villanelles. Here he had met Selena, a teen-age woman poet who had left school to be a writer, and who had constructed for herself a "new, preferred identity" (60) through tablecloths that became wispy Oriental shawls, and dime-store cosmetics that created Gypsy illusions. Her poetry is presented by the story as similarly having created illusions of mystery out of everyday materials:

The Egyptian Queen of Heaven and Earth was wandering in the Underworld....
All this was taking place, not in the ancient Middle Kingdom of the Egyptians, but in flat, dingy Toronto, on Spadina Avenue, at night, among the darkened garment factories and delicatessens and bars and pawnshops. It was a lament, and a celebration. Richard had never heard anything like it.
[...] He felt his careful talent shrivelling to the size of a dried bean.

17In Richard's encounter with Selena, two almost parallel exegetical operations are performed. While Selena reads "flat dingy Toronto" and finds within it intimations of Isis and Osiris, Richard reads Selena herself as a visual sign of magic and insight far beyond his own verbal powers. He burns all of his poems. He has increasing difficulty in writing the academic papers necessary for his career advancement. Selena summarizes the extra-social and extra-linguistic view of artistic creation which both she and Richard are adopting when she advises him "kindly and sadly": "The light only shines for some.... And even for them it's not all the time. The rest of the time you are alone" (73). The binary foundation of her advice — illumination and darkness, transcendence and solitude — repeats the contrast the story itself has constructed between her and Richard. While he has sought success through fabrication — through making sestinas and villanelles, through educating himself in critical modes — she has left school, lived precariously, and sought what Richard describes as "amazement,... tingling secret,... splendours" (65). She goes on to publish numerous books which Richard envies, while he marries "a normal girl with a healthy outlook" and acquires the uninspiring marks of bourgeois routine:

... a paunch and a mortgage, a bedraggled marriage; he mowed the lawn, he owned sports jackets, grudgingly he raked the autumn leaves and shovelled the winter snow. [...] He should have been living in an attic, eating bread and maggoty cheese, washing his one shirt out at night, his head incandescent with words (76).

18The concluding pages continue this construction, although they move Selena away from inspiration and to unredeemed phenomenality. Richard encounters Selena some twenty years later — "a thickish woman in a black trench coat" with an odour "of sweetish wine, a whiff of cat" (80-81). He asks her about her poetry.

"Poetry," she said with scorn. "I hate poetry, It's just this. This is all there is. This stupid city" (81).

19A few months later she is dead. Richard busies himself attempting to write a book about her, a "mosaic" of file cards and paper through which he hopes to fit her "broken pieces back together" (83). The file cards and scraps of paper that aspire to Osiris repeat again the contrast between the "stupid" unredeemed phenomenality which ultimately killed Selena and the vision she had often gained. Notably, whatever irony operates in the story, does not fall on Selena or her visions. They fall on Richard, on his naive beliefs that he can become a writer, on his clumsy and unfocused efforts to become a tenured academic, and on his marrying an openly anti-poetic woman when sexually rejected by Selena. They fall also on his idealizations of Selena's life, on his notion that it is romantic to eat maggoty bread in garret, on his failure to note the ultimately lethal sacrifices she must make to continue her writing. That is, the concept that exegetical vision is both necessary to art and rarely achieved is confirmed by this irony rather than subject to it.

20The story "Death by Landscape" constructs the contrast between the visual sign and conventional social discourse around several paintings by Tom Thomson, A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald and David Milne that the focalizing character, Lois, has collected. The everyday life of this character is depicted as having occurred exclusively within inadequate, superficial, and postured forms of language. Language here is exclusively an instrument of fashion, social practice, and pragmatic self-interest — the instrument of parents who send their children to camp because they find them annoying to have about, of summer-camp counsellors who require the children to be cheerful, aggressive, and resourceful simply because to be so is a useful life strategy. It creates women

who have a hardness to their handshakes..., a way of standing, legs planted firmly and farther apart than usual, a way of sizing you up, to see if you'd be any good in a canoe — the front, not the back. They themselves would be in the back. They would call it the stem (111).

21But one remarkable and explicable event has happened to Lois; at a children’s summer camp her best friend Lucy has walked with her into the woods, "stepped sideways, and disappeared from time". The story presents all subsequent elements in Lois’s life, except for the paintings she has collected, as having been mundane and forgettable. Now an old woman,

[s]he can hardly remember... having her two boys in the hospital, nursing them as babies; she can hardly remember getting married, or what Rob looked like. Even at the time she never felt she was paying full attention. She was tired a lot, as if she was living not one life but two; her own, and other shadowy life that hovered around her and would not let itself be realized — the life of what would have happened if Lucy had not stepped sideways... (128).

22The story configures the paintings, however, as "holes" and "doors" into this other "shadowy life". Like Kat’s tumour and Selena’s visions, the paintings reach beyond language. Looking at them is said to fill Lois "with wordless unease" (110). Within their endless "twists and turns of tree and branch of rock" (129) the mystery of Lucy's last steps gazes "back out" (110). This understanding of the paintings as collections of signs resistant to arrangement and interpretation resembles Elaine Risley's interpretation of her paintings. They do not signify by representation, but by allegory and anagogy.

… these paintings are not landscape paintings. Because there aren't any landscapes up there, not in the old, tidy European sense, with a gentle hill, a curving river, a cottage, a mountain in the background, a golden evening sky. Instead there's a tangle, a receding maze, in which you can become lost almost as soon as you step off the path. There are no backgrounds in any of these paintings, no vistas; only a great deal of foreground that goes back and back, endlessly, involving you in its twists and turns of tree and branch and rock. No matter how far back in you go, there will be more. And the trees themselves are hardly trees, they are currents of energy, charged with violent colour.

She looks at the paintings, she looks into them. Every one of them is picture of Lucy (128-129).

  • 2 In the story "A Travel Piece" is constructed one of the most dramatic examples of this figuration, (...)

23Narratologically, all three of these stories, like nine of the eleven stories in the collection, are third-person narrations focalized through a single character. Although these characters are made to appear 'responsible' for the views they take toward the visual signs they encounter, the narrators also appear to shape the stories so as to emphasize the binary figuration of the phenomenal and the anagogic; beyond this narrator, the signator Margaret Atwood is associated with the recurrence of this figuration not only in these and the other stories but also in Cat's Eye, The Edible Woman, and other Atwood fiction2. I mention this because one possible reading of these stories is as texts that ironize the social practice of searching for transcendent meaning. Facilitating such an interpretation is the marking of most of the characters are limited or 'wounded'; their search for anagogic meaning within the objects that surround them is motivated, in that in all cases it has been occasioned by the failure of the social order — family, friendship, marriage, business — to assist them in constructing their lives as meaningful. Operating against such an interpretation, however, is the textual irony of the stories, which falls much more heavily on characters who are portrayed as attempting to base their lives on social and institutional structure than on those who seek anagogy — on Richard rather than Selena, on Jane rather than on the industrial society which is littering her sidewalk, on Kat rather than the opportunistic supervisor who has replaced her. The repeated binary structuration of the stories, between characters who read anagogically, and characters who read pragmatically and instrumentally, further limits possible interpretation, in as much as the stories offer no further sites of value. At the very least, these stories construct a sympathy for anagogic searches for meaning and value.


Texts Cited

Atwood, Margaret, Cat's Eye. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988.

Atwood, Margaret, Dancing Girls and Other Stories. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.

Atwood, Margaret, The Edible Woman. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969.

Atwood, Margaret, Wilderness Tips. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1991.

McGann, Jerome. The Romantic Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.


1 The portrayal of Selena bears a considerable resemblance to the public career of poet Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941-1987). Elsewhere in Wilderness Tips characterizations bear at least partial resemblances to other public figures including journalist Pierre Berton.

2 In the story "A Travel Piece" is constructed one of the most dramatic examples of this figuration, when Annette, a travel agent whose business it is to arrange the lives of others to appear idyllic and trouble-free, imagines the world as an enormous travel poster, "a giant screen, flat and with pictures painted on it to create the illusion of solidity. If you walked up to it and kicked it, it would tear and your foot would go right through, into another space which Annette could only visualize as darkness..." (Dancing Girls, 140).

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1993

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