Death By Landscape Summary

Margaret Atwood

Death By Landscape

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Death By Landscape Summary

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“Death by Landscape” (1991), a short story by multi-award winning Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood, tells of a woman who later in her life lives alone, remembering times with a childhood friend. Lois attends a camp when she is young and becomes friends with Lucy. Lucy disappears during a canoe trip and is never found. For the rest of her life, Lois collects landscape paintings, which somehow give her the feeling that Lucy is still with her.

Lois and Lucy are in their early teens when they meet at a summer camp in the northern region of Ontario, Canada. They attend the camp for three years. Lois is from a middle-class family and appears to be ordinary. Lucy, on the other hand, is from a rich Chicago family and has a glamorous aura about her. Lois feels somewhat jealous of this new friend from America. They write letters to each other during the rest of the year, maintaining their friendship. They develop a relationship that has them feeling like sisters. By the third year of their friendship, Lucy has become sad and distant as her parents decide to separate.

On the third day of a canoe trip, the pair climbs to a high point overlooking a lake. Lucy thinks about diving into the water below, but the idea scares Lois. Lucy tells Lois that she needs to relieve herself, so Lois walks away a little to provide some privacy. When Lois hears a quick shout, she goes back to the edge of the summit and cannot find Lucy anywhere. Lucy’s body is not found after this disappearance. Whether she fell or jumped off of the cliff is not made clear to Atwood’s readers. The camp’s owner and director, Cappie, worries that the event will mar the reputation of her camp. She decides that she needs a believable explanation for what happened.

Cappie chooses to make Lois a scapegoat, floating the implication that Lois must have been mad at Lucy for some reason and pushed her off of the cliff, killing her. This suggestion shocks Lois, who breaks down in tears. Her reaction, unfortunately, is interpreted by Cappie as meaning that Lois is guilty of what Cappie has suggested. Time passes and Lois grows up. She marries and has two children. She has, however, remained disconnected from life, going through the motions, but not really feeling a part of anything. Now in old age, she cannot recall the face of her late husband nor the birth of her sons or even raising them. As the narrative voice explains, “She never felt she was paying full attention to her life. She was tired a lot, as if she was living not one life but two.” Atwood suggests that Lois is trapped in a life that never actually happened, one that would have unfolded had Lucy not disappeared from it. Lucy remains alive to Lois in the paintings she has collected and that fill her walls.

The ending of the story raises numerous unanswered questions. It is not clear why Lois has held on to her grief for her entire life. Lois knows that she is innocent of what the camp director accused her of, yet the suggestion of her doing such a thing when she was a teen has cast a pall over the rest of her life. She has lived almost as if she had committed a crime. There is the possibility that Lois’s feelings of grief and anger could be masking feelings of guilt—not guilt for a crime she did not commit, but for the feelings of envy she had for her friend’s social position in society. The loss of her friend was traumatic for Lois, yet she did not receive comfort at the time. Instead, she was cast, unfairly and wrongly, as the cause of her grief, leading her to spend the rest of her life trying to deny that the loss even took place.

The setting of “Death by Landscape” is symbolic and paradoxical. Lois fears the wilderness and respects it at the same time. For a time, she could not understand the desire she had for paintings of landscapes that represent places where she would have to contend with wildlife. They cover her walls, she realizes, as a tribute of sorts to her long ago friend, Lucy. She looks at the paintings, and while she admires them, they are not a source of comfort for her. They symbolize the place that became her friend’s grave. In the story, the Canadian wilderness is described in great detail imaging the campsite surrounded by the wilderness.