The Poems of Margaret Atwood
A Comparative Study of Journeys within Different Texts and Text Types: Skrzynecki, Atwood, and Grenville
The process of overcoming different challenges faced in a journey has the potential to transform an individual’s identity and morality. Peter Skrzynecki’s ‘Crossing the Red Sea’ (1975) recounts the journey taken by the refuges from the horrors of World War II to convey their change in identity upon surpassing the challenges of liberation. On the other hand, Margaret Atwood’s ‘Journey to the Interior’ (1965) outlines the persona’s journey across the metaphysical world to delve into the moral transformation upon overcoming the imagination. Comparatively, Kate Grenville’s ‘The Secret River’ (2005) stresses both of these ideas through the protagonist’s journey of colonization, where the obstacles faced through settling are able to evoke reformation in both identity and morality.
Skrzynecki’s ‘Crossing the Red Sea’, outlines how by overcoming past sacrifices, an individual is able to transform their identity. The poem is a powerful biblical allusion to Exodus, where the Victims of World War II are presented with many traumatic hardships during their journey to seek refuge. The outset of the journey is shown through the retrospective tone in ‘many slept on deck, because of the day’s heat, or to watch a sunset they would never see again’, which demonstrates that the persona is about to leave his former life behind. The personification of the memories in ‘memories strayed from behind sunken eyes’, reveals to the audience the persona is unable to escape the thoughts of past sacrifices. However, Skrzynecki ultimately highlights to readers that by overcoming such memories and by leaving the past behind, an individual is able to change their identity. The personification of the ‘sea’ in ‘All night, the kindness of the sea continued – breaking into walled-up griefs that men had sworn would never be disclosed’ effectively emphazises that the persona is overcoming his past to become someone new. This successfully outlines to the audience that leaving behind an individual’s past has the potential to transform an individual’s identity.
Correspondingly, Grenville’s ‘The Secret River’ reveals how by conquering the initial hardships faced in a journey of settlement, an individual is able to acquire a new physical identity. Much like ‘Crossing the Red Sea’, in Thornhill’s journey of settling in Australia, the ability to forsake the past and adapt to a new landscape is the catalyst to his transformation. The vulnerability of settling on a foreign land is explored by the visual imagery in ‘a sun as he had not imagined could exist was burning through the thin stuff of his slops’, which reveals the protagonist’s unfamiliarity with the present landscape. The metaphor in ‘This was a prison whose bars were ten thousand miles of water’, impresses upon us the impossibility of escaping the environment, indicating the need of change in conquering a contemporary landscape. This necessary adaptation is shown by the juxtaposition between ‘London’ and ‘Outsider’ in ‘if they were to go to London, they would be outsiders, with their sunburnt skin and their colonial ways’, demonstrating that by overcoming his initial vulnerability, Thornhill is able attain a new physical identity. Through this, Grenville successfully highlights to the audience the need of overcoming contemporary challenges, in order for an individual to physically transform.
Atwood’s ‘Journey to the Interior’ indicates that by overcoming the imagination, an individual is able to transform their moral approach to the meaning of life. By traversing through the metaphysical world, the persona is able to conquer her imagination, allowing for the re-evaluation of her life. The abstract imagery in the opening stanza ‘swamp’, ‘cliff’ and ‘trees’ demonstrates that the persona’s mind is immediately confused in the imagination. The visual imagery in ‘I move surrounded by a tangle of branches, a net of air and alternate light and dark, at all times; that there are no destinations apart from this’ reveals that the she is trying to escape this confusion and find her way out. However, as the persona continues the journey, Atwood reveals that it is ultimately the rediscovery of the tangible world that may transform our moral perceptions on life. The parenthetical enjambment of ‘have i been working in circles again’ denotes that the persona is starting the question the destination, which is finally reached in the high modality retrospection of ‘Whatever I do I must keep my head’, demonstrating her realisation of the enticing nature of the imagination. Through this, Atwood effectively highlights to the audience that by overcoming the imagination, an individual is able to reshape their value of life, however futile imaginative journeys may make them seem
On a different note, in ‘The Secret River’, Grenville shows how by overcoming typical perspectives of racial segregation, an individual is able to transform their moral approach to others. In the colonization of Australia, Thornhill challenges to approach to typical Western values of indigenous extermination, allowing him to morally shape a relationship with them. Thornhill’s initial disapproval of the ‘blacks’ upon his first encounter is demonstrated by the simile in ‘They were like the snakes or the spiders, not something that could be guarded against’, where the high modality tone is symbolic to the outset of their racial differences. However, similar to ‘Journey to the Interior’, Grenville indicates to the audience that by overcoming such hardships, an individual is able to transform their morality. Thornhill’s understanding of the indigenous Australians is demonstrated by the repetition of ‘when you take a little, always remember to give a little’ by one of his many influences, Blackwood, to effectively symbolize his slow moral understanding of treating the Aboriginals. This understanding is reinforced through the protagonist’s high modality tone in ‘In spite of everything, it seemed like the blacks weren’t going to disappear’, demonstrating his final realization that the ‘Blacks’ had a morally right place in his life. Through this, Grenville effectively serves as a powerful reminder to us that by overcoming typical views on racial segregation will an individual morally transform their relationship with others.
Effective Irony: The Sirens in Homer’s and Atwood’s Writings
Homer’s Odyssey and Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song” each depict the great power of the Sirens of Greek mythology; on a deeper level, the two works explore the destructiveness of women through the archetype of the femme fatale. Both Homer and Atwood highlight the influence women have over men through the irresistible temptations of the Sirens. However, through the juxtaposition of the two opposing points of view of each poem, two differing portrayals of the Sirens emerge.
Written in the point of view of Odysseus, Homer’s poem emphasizes the qualities of masculinity and strength, suggesting that the Sirens, though formidable, are no match for the Odysseus and his crew. Odysseus recalls his “trim ship…speeding toward / the Sirens’ island” (1-2), immediately setting a tone of confidence despite the precarious situation he finds himself in, his diction suggesting that the situation is totally within his control. In preparation for the encounter with the Sirens, Odysseus kneads the wax with his “two strong hands” (4) and administers the precautionary measure to his “comrades one by one” (7) before being “lashed by ropes to the mast” (9) himself, indirectly characterizing the Sirens as overtly dangerous and powerful through the preparations necessary to face them, but also characterizing Odysseus and his crew as cunning and trusting of one another, suggesting their strength as one unit. Upon encountering the Sirens, the men “[fling] themselves at the oars” (22) and “[spring] up at once / to bind [Odysseus] faster with rope on chafing rope” (23-24), further reinforcing the crew’s physical strength as they overcome what could have been certain death. Although women did hold power over men in ancient Greece, the male dominated society ultimately forced females into subservience and is reflected in Homer’s portrayal of the Sirens.
Atwood’s poem, which reflects the point of view of a Siren, emphasizes emotional power over physical power, implying that men are vulnerable through their curiosity and through temptation. The speaker immediately entices the reader by describing “one song everyone / would like to learn: the song / that is irresistible” (1-3), setting a suspenseful tone through enjambed lines that accelerate the pace, pulling the reader in, and anaphora that teases the possibility of hearing the aforementioned song. Likewise, the Siren appeals directly to the reader, claiming she “will tell the secret to you, /…only to you” (19-20) because “Only you, only you can” (23) save her, creating a seductive tone as the Siren characterizes herself as the cliche damsel in distress, while utilizing the second person point-of-view to tempt the reader to be her hero when in reality she is leading him to his death. While men held the dominant role in ancient Greek society, they were susceptible to temptation and seduction because their abundance of physical strength was offset by their emotional weakness, which the Sirens exploit.
While Homer and Atwood differ with their portrayal of the Sirens, both poets characterize them as manipulative, deceitful, and irresistible, reinforcing the motif of the femme fatale through this stereotype of women in Greek society. In Odysseus’s encounter with the Sirens, they “burst into their thrilling song” (Homer 13), referring to him as “famous Odysseus – Achaea’s pride and glory” (Homer 14) with their “honeyed voices” (Homer 17), using flattery in an attempt to lure him to his death. The Sirens likewise promise to make Odysseus “a wiser man” (Homer 18) with their “ravishing voices” (Homer 19), making his heart “[throb] to listen longer” (Homer 20), and further demonstrating the power of their treachery through sensory language; had Odysseus not been restrained he would have succumbed to the temptation. Their song is so powerful that it “forces men / to leap overboard in squadrons” (Atwood 4-5) even though “anyone who has heard it / is dead” (Atwood 8-9), indirectly characterizing the Sirens as paradigms of the femme fatale because they are irresistible to men but ultimately lead to their downfall. In a patriarchal society, when denied real authority, women will resort to their powers of temptation.
Homer and Atwood both demonstrate the power women hold over men through the two differing portrayals of the Sirens: Homer, while admitting their power, maintains masculinity over the strength of the Sirens, while Atwood upholds the emotional control women exert over man, yet they both maintain the stereotype of the femme fatale. In a society focused on controlling women, these stereotypes only perpetuated the divide as women, being characterized this way eventually found it to be true and failed to recognize that they could be more.
Close Reading of “Dreams of the Animals”
Dreams of the Animals by Margaret Atwood is a poem written in several verses. From the title of the poem, the reader can see that the emphasis is put on “the animals” not “the dreams”. This gives the reader insight on the topic of this poem, that it will be focusing on the animals and their feelings. Also, since only humans are known to dream, this poses questions for the reader about what the differences between animal and human really are.
Dreams of the Animals is written in a voice for the animals, as the animals cannot speak themselves. Since the speaker is an activist for the animals, the poem circles around the topic that animals are just as important as humans, they are people as well. However, the concept that animals, “mostly dream of other animals each according to its own kind” (Atwood 1-3), does imply that animals have less complex dreams than humans do. Atwood’s poem touches on the dreams of different species of animals, one example being how moles dream of ,”mole smells” (8). Dreams of the Animals follows a formal structure, as every animal and their dreams are situated into separate stanzas. For example, the second stanza is about, “certain mice and small rodents” (Atwood 4), and the fifth stanza is on the topic of “red and black striped fish” (13,14). Furthermore, as the poem is separated into stanzas, there are also indented stanzas as well. When the plot turns to more of a darker theme of nightmares, the stanzas are indented and some are in parentheses, almost as if they are an ‘aside’ or to be treated as separate from the other more cheerful dreams.
As the speaker talks about dreams in the poem there is no physical setting, because the speaker moves from dream to dream. However, each dream does have a brief explanation of setting in each stanza. The first four stanzas, there is a brief explanation of natural setting, which creates a more light and happy tone and implies that the animals enjoy being in the wild and not enclosed in tight tanks or cages. In the fifth stanza, there is a change in setting as the animals no longer dream of the natural world, but the dangers of other beings. This change in description of settings and the animal’s dreams, creates a darker and more heavy tone for the reader. The change in tone and use of words to describe the settings also a message for the reader, that animals do not necessarily like being kept captive and traumatized by humans, and this is why these things show up in their dreams. Atwood’s poem uses imagery to broaden the perspective onto the topic of animals and their rights. The first example of imagery in the poem is the use of vivid colours, such as; “green and golden” (Atwood 9) and “red and black” (13). This imagery is used to describe the dreams of those animals that are free from all constraints in the wild, and to show the reader that these animals are content and full of life.
The second example of imagery in Dreams of the Animals is associated with the animals which have human contact. The disturbing dreams of the fox being, “of baby foxes, with their necks bitten” (27), evokes the mental effect on animals being held captive, into the mind of the reader. A final example of imagery in the poem is the image of people themselves being the predator. To convey the fear of the animals, Atwood writes, “a huge pink shape with five claws descending” (5-6) and also the fear of manmade objects, such as; “soap and metal” (21), the “roadside zoo” (25), and the “train station” (29-30). Margaret Atwood’s poem obviously has a strong stance against human interaction with animals. As presented in their subconscious with nightmares and the lack of vivid dreams, the animals fear human interaction. One example from the ninth stanza being, “the caged armadillo […] which runs all day in figure eights […] no longer dreams but is insane when waking” (28-34). This poem’s topic and message relates to the modern-day debate and fight against animal testing and their rights. Although Atwood wrote the poem forty years ago, it still relates to today. One example being the animal rights activist group, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which shows videos and writes articles for the public, to inform people of the mistreatment of animals.
In Dreams of the Animals, humans are portrayed as the monsters, and “Atwood suggests that humans and animals are interdependent and that when animals become objects, people are likewise reduced in terms of their humanity” (eNotes). The topic of animals is common among Margaret Atwood’s works of literature. In The Animals in That Country, Atwood gives the animal personified characters, and relays them to the reader as if they were human. In another literary work titled Procedures for Underground, is a series of poems about animals also involving dreams (eNotes). Therefore, the topic of animal rights is a common one throughout Atwood’s works, and her message is very clear: animals are not meant to be used and abused by humans, as even keeping them captive has mental effects on them.
Atwood, Margaret. “Dreams of the Animals.” Introduction to the Study of Poetry. Chulalongkorn University, 19 June 2007. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.”Dreams of the Animals Analysis.” Enotes.com. Enotes.com, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.”Dreams of the Animals Themes.” Enotes.com. Enotes.com, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.Montalvo, Beatriz. “Atwood’s “Dreams of the Animals”.” Beatrizmontalvo. WordPress.com, 02 May 2012. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.