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16 pages 32 minutes read

Margaret Atwood

The Landlady

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1968

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

“The Landlady” was written by Canadian poet Margaret Atwood. It was published in 1968 in Atwood’s fifth collection of poetry titled The Animals in That Country. This collection was published 17 years before The Handmaid’s Tale made its debut in 1985 and Atwood's subsequent rise to international fame. Atwood is known as a feminist writer, as she often writes about the female experience, and her narrative poem “The Landlady” is no different with its exploration of isolation, lack of agency, and mental health issues. Atwood was first published as a poet in 1961. Having begun her career in the 1960s during the second wave feminist poetry movement, Atwood was writing at the same time as poets Sylvia Plath, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser.

Poet Biography

Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Canada in 1939. Interested in myths and fairy tales from a young age, Atwood would accompany her entomologist father on his trips into the Canadian wilderness, where she would find inspiration for her later stories and poems. She started writing for pleasure around the age of six. At 16, Atwood decided to embark on her journey of becoming a professional writer, and in 1957 she commenced her studies at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College. She has published over 50 books of fiction and poetry as well as critical essays, graphic novels, and children’s books. Her writing has been published in nearly 50 countries. Her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale is now a major television series; its sequel, entitled The Testaments (2019), was co-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize. Atwood has won numerous other prizes and awards, including the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award and the Franz Kafka International Literary Prize. She has written deeply personal poems about members of her family, including her 17th century witchcraft-lynching survivor ancestor Mary Webster and her deceased husband Graeme Gibson. She currently resides in Toronto, Canada.

Poem Text

Atwood, Margaret. “The Landlady.” 1968. Poem Hunter.

Summary

“The Landlady” opens with a single line stating, “This is the lair of the landlady” (Line 1) with no period at the end of the statement, which leaves it open ended. Every stanza after this has a period at the end. The next stanza describes the landlady as “a raw voice” (Line 3) that is “loose in the rooms beneath” (Line 4) the speaker. In the third stanza, the speaker compares the constant chatter to a henyard, likening the voice to the sounds of chickens. In lines 6 and 7, the poet writes that the landlady’s noises are going on “below thought” and are like “the bicker of blood through the head” (Line 8). In stanza four, the reader is told the landlady is “everywhere” like a smell and that she “presides” over the writer while the speaker eats. The landlady hinders her ability to see in that she “generates / the light for eyestrain” (Lines 12-13). In the fifth stanza, the speaker tells the reader that it is “[f]rom her I rent my time” (Line 14), and by the end of the stanza the speaker states, “Nothing is mine” (Line 17).

In the beginning of the sixth stanza, the speaker is dreaming of running away and making “daring escapes through the snow” (Line 19). However, whenever she sees underneath the snow, she sees the landlady’s face, which forces her to “wake up shouting” (Line 23) by the end of the stanza. The seventh stanza describes the landlady as “a bulk, a knot” (Line 24) the speaker has struggled “to find some way around” (Line 26)—she can’t because her “senses / are cluttered by perception” (Lines 27-28).

In the penultimate stanza, Stanza 8, the landlady “stands there, a raucous fact” (Line 30) “blocking” the speaker’s way and is described as “immutable, a slab / of what is real” (Line 32-33). Then the last line, which is itself a separate stanza, like the first line, states the landlady is “solid as bacon” (Line 34), and the poem ends with a period.

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