Margaret Atwood - Survival (D)

Survival is a guide to Canadian literature written by Margaret Atwood in 1972, a time when we barely recognized “Can lit” as a thing.

She asks “Is there such a thing as ‘Canadian literature’ and, if so, how would you define it?” The answer is in the title: yes, it exists; the dominant theme in Canadian literature is survival; oh, and the central character is the “victim”.

Favourite Quote/ Scene

Dennis Lee’s poetry + Alden Nowlan’s “A Night Hawk Fell With a Sound Like a Shudder” - in any hunt I'm with the quarry.


The framing of the  stages of victimhood is a helpful device. Position One: denial. Position Two: acknowledge and accept without challenge. Position Three: acknowledge but challenge the inevitability of your victimhood. Position Four: become a creative non-victim. That said, I’m not totally convinced that this particular formula is unique to Canadian literature. Many, many narratives from many, many cultures have characters who would fit Atwood’s definition of “victim”.

More helpful is the index of symbols, themes, and literary tropes that can be found in Canlit, particularly those related to nature and animals. This is where Atwood is strongest and where the authors and works are most interesting to me personally. 

Atwood herself says it is not an exhaustive and analysis of all Canadian literature and notes that the book has become dated - but it’s an excellent introduction to literary and art criticism.

Even if you think the framework is limited - and some critics do - the fact that we’d argue about the accuracy of her theory is proof that she won the main argument in 1972: Canlit is a thing.

What’s Next?

Canlit, obviously. Preferably a female author to balance out the first three books in this thread.