Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood

wilderness tips margaret atwood

Ready for a holiday beside a picturesque Canadian Lake, with an extended family of unpleasant people with intersecting and complicated back stories? No way! Count me out. Oh, but “Wilderness Tips” is by Margaret Atwood. Okay then. Let’s go!

I’m reading “Wilderness Tips” in the February 18, 1991 edition of The New Yorker. There’s also a 1991 short story collection is named after this one.

Because I’m not Canadian, an initial read of this story left me a little cold: What happened and what was that about? Fortunately, literary scholars have studied Margaret Atwood in depth. Below I refer to their work, especially a paper by Carol Beran.

In each of these tales Margaret Atwood deftly illuminates the single instant that shapes a whole life: in a few brief pages we watch as characters progress from the vulnerabilities of adolescence through the passions of youth into the precarious complexities of middle age.  By superimposing the past on the present, Atwood paints interior landscapes shaped by time, regret, and life’s lost chances, endowing even the banal with a sense of mystery.  Richly layered and disturbing, poignant at times and scathingly witty at others, the stories in Wilderness Tips take us into the strange and secret places of the heart and inform the familiar world in which we live with truths that cut to the bone.

marketing copy for the collection Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood

AN ENVIRONMENTAL STORY

“Wilderness Tips” registers a “slippage in the bedrock” of traditional English Canadian myths of nationhood under pressures of Quebec separatism and the cultural and political resurgence of First Nations People.

The Robber Bride; or, Who Is a True Canadian? by Carol Ann Howells

Sharon Rose Wilson tells us that the stories in the Wilderness Tips collection reveal Atwood’s concern for the environment, alongside Surfacing and Handmaid’s Tale.

What does this story say about environmental matters? Even from this part of the Canadian “wilderness”, the characters can hear the sound of the highway. Although 1990s Canadians might feel they live in the wilderness, and even though they may indeed be surrounded by a vista which looks natural, for most of the population the wilderness is not genuine wilderness. Instead, holiday-makers sense the feel of the wilderness. It lines up nicely with their sense of being Canadian. (For Australians, that’s probably the beach.)

THE ACID RAIN COMMENT

At one point in the story, Prue jokingly asks George if he’d prefer beer or acid rain. This briefly had me wondering if this story was set in a dystopian future, and that the characters were ensconced at the lodge because the rest of the world had fallen to pieces.

But no. In 1990s Canada, acid rain was on people’s mind (and these characters have just been discussing the news, after all). In Ontario, by the mid-1980s, nickel and copper smelters in the town of Sudbury had been badly altered by acid rain. Every lifeform in the lake died. But when we think of environmental pollution we generally think of algae and mud, not purity. Yet this lake appeared beautifully pure. You could see all the way to the lake floor, over fifteen metres down.

We now know that air pollution chemically transforms into sulphuric and nitric acid, but it took decades to work this out. Much of the science took place in Ontario, which had lakes badly affected and also lakes which remained unaffected. When Atwood wrote this story, scientists knew what was causing the acid rain, and were now busting a boiler to try and fix the damage. The USA blamed a Canadian coal power plant for causing it, though in the end this small power plant was a very minor contributor. Ohio, Pennsylvania and New England were producing more than half of the pollution of border lakes.

The good news is, Canada and the USA were able to work together. Smart scientists have now restored lake chemistry. The bad news is, biological recovery is much slower, and still not there yet.

Now Asia is dealing with acid rain.

Importantly for Atwood’s story, the appearance of purity does not mean purity. Quietude, solitary existence and clarity could mean something terrible. That’s the unnerving thing about acid rain and lakes.

SETTING OF “WILDERNESS TIPS”

‘Wacousta’ refers to a 1832 novel by John Richardson, ‘sometimes claimed as the first Canadian novel’. (It’s free to read online, of course.) The full title is Wacousta; or, THE PROPHECY. The story is set a century before it was published, in the mid 1700s. (The novel was as popular in America as in Canada, selling well alongside The Last of the Mohicans.)

I can’t be bothered reading much of it. The sentences are complex, the detail excruciating. One of the easier snippets:

It was during the midnight watch, late in September, 1763, that the English garrison of Detroit, in North America, was thrown into the utmost consternation by the sudden and mysterious introduction of a stranger within its walls. The circumstance at this moment was particularly remarkable; for the period was so fearful and pregnant with events of danger, the fort being assailed on every side by a powerful and vindictive foe, that a caution and vigilance of no common kind were unceasingly exercised by the prudent governor for the safety of those committed to his charge…

Wacousta, beginning of Chapter 2

JUXTAPOSING THEMES

Surely Margaret Atwood is doing something intertextual with the setting in “Wilderness Tips”, which reaches beyond my ken as a non-Canadian. The Wikipedia entry for Richardson’s classic novel has me on the lookout for any inherited themes:

Its themes include prophecy and opposites, such as manliness vs. effeminacy, wilderness/wildness vs. civilization, sensibility vs. compassion and the natural vs. the supernatural among others.

Wacousta

Do we see those same juxtapositions in “Wilderness Tips”? Well, we’ve got two quite different men. George is the manly businessman whereas the brother is a more gentle type. Yes, Atwood says something about holiday-wilderness not equally real wilderness, with the lodge next to the highway as well as between the two men, civilised and less so.

What about sensibility and compassion? (Sensibility is an old-fashioned word. Most people say ‘sensitivity’ now.) Hm. A cunning inversion, I think. Roland may be the more gentle man, but his thoughts are pretty dark.

“Wilderness Tips” is not a supernatural tale, but we do have a difference between interiority and external world. George behaves quite differently from how he thinks e.g. he is nice when he feels one of the sisters is evil. (Another example of a short story which does this: “Father To Be” by Saul Bellow.

GARRISON MENTALITY

Wacousta is the standout example of (and reason for) Northrop Frye’s famous theory about Canadian literature: That it is a classic example — the O.G. example — of ‘garrison mentality’.

Apparently Atwood is exploring the major Canadian literary theories in each of these stories. According to this theory, the natural setting of Canada shapes its people in a deterministic way. The Canadian landscape makes people introspective and defensive. Inferiority, overwhelm and a sense of isolation are also a part of it, as is ‘inventing more difficulties for oneself than necessary’.

The garrison mentality, or theory, argues that early Canadian identity was characterised by fear of an empty and hostile national landscape. It suggests that the environment’s impact on the national psyche has influenced themes within Canadian literature, cinema and television. The term was first coined by literary critic Northrop Frye in the Literary History of Canada (1965), who used the metaphorical image of a garrison to illustrate that Canadians are defensive and hiding from external forces.

Garrison Mentality, Wikipedia

I’m wondering if my home country of Australia also has a bit of garrison mentality, but it seems the coldness of Canada plays a significant part. Australia has the wilderness but not the extreme cold. We also feel inferior to America, but that’s pretty new. Until recently we felt inferior to England.

MARGARET ATWOOD’S CONTRIBUTION TO GARRISON MENTALITY IN LITERARY THEORY

In her book 1972 Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Atwood ‘added to the development of this theory by suggesting that the Canadian insecurity surrounding survival was also a product of cultural domination from the US, not just the physical landscape.’

Beran points out that in Portia’s vision at the end of the story, Canada could be seen as the sinking Titanic where passengers are unaware of the lot that has befallen them. Beran argues that this story and similar ones could be seen as manifestations of the native Canadians’ fear of the presence of strangers, non-natives and foreigners. As in Moral Disorder, axes exist in the imagination of a character whose territory is endangered. Although they are not used, they seem to suggest a possibility of confrontation with an enemy.

When the narrator’s gaze identifies the Indian as a potential source of threat, Atwood expects the reader to respond and take action against the intruder. In Beran’s words, the role that Atwood assigns readers is “responding with rage and then transcending it”. The wide range of sharp implements and the axe could be sued against anyone who endangers the territory. The Indian does not know “it’s me.” Atwood invites a whole nation to take action against the intruder who has come “here,” where he does not belong and where he might be a threat to the peaceful community.

“My Monster Self”: Violence and Survival in Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder, talking about the work of Carol Beran “Strangers Within the Gates: Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips” 2009

CAST OF CHARACTERS IN “WILDERNESS TIPS”

Whenever you get three sisters (or three brothers) in fiction, you’re probably looking at contrasting archetypes. (Either that, or different facets which can be found inside us all, Winnie-the-Pooh style.) The duck, loon and grouse kept under glass bells may also line up with archetypes, though my knowledge of birds falls short. I can’t line them up to the women.

Note a very similar sisterly set-up in August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. Karen is Prue, the sexual adventurer. Ivy is Pamela, the reserved academic (though she’s never had the opportunity to leave Osage County). Barbara is Portia, the betrayed wife who can’t see what’s really going on, not even to her own daughter, under her nose.

Carol Beran posits that these sisters represent types of Canadian women in a story which lends itself well to a feminist reading, critiquing the notion that the sisterhood is a thing:

In “Wilderness Tips,” the battle of the sexes and the double standard provide both the tragedy and the humor as the patriarch watches from the washroom wall. Although the sisters in “Wilderness Tips” have become very different people, all can be hoodwinked by the same male and all fail to support each other in the sisterhood of women.

Strangers Within the Gates: Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips by Carol L. Beran
PRUE: THE SEXUAL ADVENTURER

The sisters were all young women in the 1950s.

Prue is now a middle-aged woman with coquettish flair. Plays at dressing up as Rosie the Riveter from the 1940s. In contrast to George, for her wartime is a category of fashion, not a traumatic world event with lasting impact into the relative calm of the 1990s. Her flirtation at the beginning of the story tricks the reader into thinking she and George are married or in a relationship, but we soon learn George married her sister. (This trick is also used in episode one of Mad Men, in which we don’t know Don Draper is married with children until he returns to the suburbs at the end of a long day in the city.)

In contrast to Pamela, her chat runs to the sexual at every opportunity.

Though Prue keeps up the trends while living in the city, she wants the ‘wilderness’ around the lodge to remain the same. Of course, it can’t, and the audible nearby highway and the noisy ‘plastic motorboat’ is evidence of that. The story is saying something about how Canadians are able to cope with great change, so long as there’s the illusion of sameness when it comes to the perceived wilderness. I’m reminded of adult children who hop all around the world living in many different houses, but having a hard time when their ageing parents sell up the family home — the home base — to downsize or go into a home. Suddenly the very earth seems to shift.

Prue strikes me as someone who can only be attracted to defamiliarized men. As soon as she becomes privy to the bathroom habits of her husbands she ditches them and goes back to her long-running affair with George, her sister’s husband. His inability to be known is the very thing that attracts her. I believe Margaret Atwood may have set that up as a parallel to how the characters, especially Prue, feel about civilisation versus the wilderness. They are drawn to the wilderness because of its unfamiliarity.

Ironically, Prue must know George very well after all these years. She really craves the feeling of unfamiliarity, the feeling of romantic danger. The exact same thing can be said for her relationship to wilderness, in which she is revealed to be a hypocrite, proclaiming to hate fast drivers of motorboats when she drives at speed herself, but only a car, and only in the city.

Basically, Prue’s romantic feelings towards George mirror the character’s romantic feelings towards the so-called wilderness.

PAMELA: THE RESERVED ACADEMIC

“Dry faced” (from George’s point of view), the eldest. Pamela distrusts George. Recently appointed a ‘dean of women’, this is exactly the sort of woman a man like George would despise to his core — the butt of jokes about ‘gender studies professors’ in other company, I’d assume.

Of the three sisters, Pamela is the one who suspects things going on beneath the surface. She suspects the stuffed birds are full of maggots. She can’t be taken in by the romance of the so-called wilderness of the family lodge. She knows there are dangerous rocks below the surface of the water, and how to be careful of them.

PORTIA: LOVING BUT BETRAYED WIFE

“Soft Portia” and the youngest, chosen by George to marry.

As the story comes to a close, Portia imagines the sinking Titanic. The passengers are ‘still not aware of the disaster that has already overcome them’. ‘Nothing has happened, really, that hasn’t happened before’.

Naming George’s wife Portia suggests that she represents the Christian virtue of her predecessor in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice who asserts, “The quality of mercy is not strained”. Does Atwood’s Portia look foolish to us as she acts out this ideal? Or does mercy truly bless “him that gives and him that takes”? Would we want to live in a world in which Atwood’s story is the final revision of Portia’s story?

Strangers Within the Gates: Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips by Carol L. Beran

Portia represents people who keep their eyes closed to environmental concerns. When she naps she just lies there, without sleeping, which actually describes how Portia goes through life in general.

You probably know people in your life who deny the climate is changing, or even if it is, there’s nothing we can do about it and it’s just the Earth’s natural cycle, etcetera. Portia’s personality type is even more relatable today than it was in the 1990s, I bet.

ROLAND

“Large, rounded and balding”, from the point of view of George. He manages other men’s money rather than having money himself. Sociologists speak in terms of masculinities, plural, and Roland is clearly the more feminine sort of man in comparison to George.

“Has the inner life of a tree, or possibly a stump.”

“Wilderness Tips”

Ha, if only George knew what Roland’s inner life really comprised. Readers learn later that Roland would love to murder George as he chops wood. (I wouldn’t call this an example of foreshadowing because it’s not really working at the level of metaphor. Instead, I’d call it the set-up and pay-off of one of Margaret Atwood’s iconic dark jokes.)

George sometimes thinks Roland can change color slightly to blend in with his backgrounds; unlike George himself, who is doomed to stand out.

“Wilderness Tips”
GEORGE

Apparently the character of George is based on a real person called George Jonas, a contemporary of Atwood’s. I have no idea who this writer is, so it doesn’t affect my reading of the text.

The narration tells us he doesn’t like hanging out with other men on social occasions because he can’t manipulate them, though it’s not clear from the text whether George is self-aware of this. The observation may come from a more knowing, dissonant narrator.

Every story in this collection has a stranger in it (though you have to expand your notion of ‘stranger’, because ‘the stranger’ might just be a hairball). Carol Beran points out that the strangers in each story exists to reveal ‘inadequacies in the perceptions of the other characters’. In “Wilderness Tips”, the stranger is, of course, George. Atwood’s strangers exist to defamiliarise. Margaret Atwood has given lectures on the ‘otherness’ of the Canadian experience (and by extension, its identity).

This collection is also full of doppelgangers, or doubles:

Of course, Atwood’s stories also tempt subtle or devious readings. Doubles may be more obviously present in “True Trash,” “Weight,” and “Hack Wednesday” than in the other stories, but surely George is the evil twin of the women’s ineffectual brother, Roland.

Strangers Within the Gates: Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips by Carol L. Beran

HIs name isn’t really George, ostensibly because his Hungarian name is too difficult for English speakers, or possibly because he’s got something to hide. Carol Beran suggests the name conjures the British Saint George (who was a saint), but Hungarian George is not British, which only highlights the fact he is pretty far from saintly.

The deck chairs here are like the escutcheons elsewhere.

“Wilderness Tips”

I had to look up the word ‘escutcheon’. It means a shield, but in the home it refers to a decorative plate used to conceal a functioning, non-architectural item. You may have seen an escutcheon on old-fashioned keyholes — you have to move a little plate aside to insert a key. Why? They prevented prying eyes and also dust and small insects from penetrating a room. They suggest someone with something to hide.

He has a ‘vulpine’ (fox-like) smile, suggesting a trickster.

George himself speaks five languages, Russian among them. In the story we’re not told which languages those are.

Several minority languages like Russian, Romanian, Croatian, Serbian, Slovak, Ukrainian, etc., are spoken by the minority communities of the country. English and German are the popular foreign languages spoken in Hungary.

What languages are spoken in Hungary?

As Atwood explores characters who are strangers to each other due to cultural differences, she creates political allegories about Canadian multiculturalism. Canadian writers frequently attempt to define the ever-elusive national identity by contrasting Canadians with people from the United States and by including distinctly different people from various ethnic groups within the Canadian mosaic.

Strangers Within the Gates: Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips by Carol L. Beran

Because English is a non-native language for George, this provides room for the characters to explore alternative meanings of words native speakers generally think very little about — another example of defamiliarization, available only to the non-native speaker. Characters consider the meanings of ‘dean’, ‘train of thought’, ‘tips’, ‘oaf’, ‘loaves’, ‘smoking like a furnace’, ‘sucker’. (Note that it’s not just George who considers the meanings of words in this story.)

Beran reads “Wilderness Tips” as a story about how Canadians don’t truly value immigrants, ‘naively valuing them without understanding the cultural differences that make them truly strangers’.

George emigrated to Toronto in the late 1950s after a traumatic wartime childhood with food insecurity, threat of death, the whole kit and caboodle.

In mid-May 1944, the Hungarian authorities, in coordination with the German Security Police, began to systematically deport the Hungarian Jews. SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann was chief of the team of “deportation experts” that worked with the Hungarian authorities. The Hungarian police carried out the roundups and forced the Jews onto the deportation trains.

Hungary After The German Occupation

He is a businessman in the city, known for his unorthodox practices. For the wild George, his money-making ventures in the city have wilderness metaphors: making money is like ‘spearing fish by lamplight’, and just as easy. He is the only one at the lodge who has read the archetypally Canadian books on the shelf. Born in Canada, it’s easy to feel Canadian without doing any work. (Same as every country.) It’s often the immigrants who know more about a country’s history. There are some things only immigrants (and foreigners) can know, because the entire country is defamiliarized to them upon immigrating, and you need to have lived in a different country to understand the peculiarities of the one you’re in.

Anyway, at the lake, George reclines on a deckchair and reads The Financial Post (an English Canadian business newspaper with a conservative editorial team). He smokes cigarettes and drinks Scotch. Here’s your manly-man. I’ll add that he’s benevolently sexist. He considers it complimentary to pretend a woman is younger than she really is. Compliments ‘cost nothing’ and he can’t understand why Canadian men haven’t worked that out. In turn, George can’t understand why women might not crave to be complimented on youthful looks, though one of the sisters in this story does enjoy this.

Speaking of Prue, he considers her evil, though treats her in an ostentatiously chivalric way, offering to kiss her hand and so on. This masculine archetype does not genuinely like women, even though he is sometimes attracted to them, but mostly wants women’s bodies for the novelty, and to say he’s done it. (Like misogynists everywhere, he considers Prue a liar. Sure she is a liar, but no bigger liar than he is.)

Portia’s insight into her husband suggests George is aromantic, meaning he doesn’t settle his romantic attention on anyone in particular. Rather, he gets sex where he can, and his ‘romantic’ interest in these sisters is really a romantic interest in the wilderness of Canada they represent.

FURTHER NOTES ON THE NARRATIVE

RULE OF THREE IN STORYTELLING

There’s a sinister emphasis on the number three. Three sisters, three stuffed birds, possibly riddled with maggots. George shot three men during the war, though it wasn’t ‘strictly necessary’ to kill the third one. The alphabet book on the shelf features ‘the bear, the bumblebee, the bunny’ with its childlike alliteration, as the sisters have been named?

Narration also shifts across three points of view: First George, next Roland and finally to Portia. (Atwood may be utilising an old trick of storytelling with all these sets of three, but doesn’t stick to the sisters, or to the men, when deciding whose point of view will be useful in telling the story.)

What are these sets of three doing? Each instance draws attention to the three sisters, or three different Canadian archetypes.

THE ENDING

Has Roland actually murdered George? The canvas deckchair, rippling like a sail with no one in it would suggest he’s permanently gone. (Empty chair as death is pretty common in stories, as is the sudden appearance of wind, as does the ringing of a bell.)

I don’t think in terms of ‘correct’ interpretations of short stories, rather in metaphorical levels. You could read this literally as a murder story, but if you read at a symbolic level, the murder takes place inside Roland’s head:

The importance of taking action against the intruder, even at an imaginary level, is obvious in “Wilderness Tips,” one of the stories in Atwood’s short story collection of the same name. Hungarian George, who is sly and calculating, seduces three Canadian sisters. However, he is hated by their brother who relieves his hatred for him by imagining himself beheading the intruder with an axe. As In Moral Disorder [Atwood’s 2006 collection of interconnected short stories], the violent games the characters play go back to their childhood. The axe game is what Roland and Prue used to play as children. Roland can never forgive Prue for bringing George to their territory, wishing he had killed her back then: “He had his stone axe. He could have brained her. She was not Prue, of course, she was treachery, she was the enemy”.

“My Monster Self”: Violence and Survival in Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder

It’s also possible that Pamela took George out on the lake and pushed him overboard. Her offer to take him out and her swatting him like a puppy on the nose seemed a little too out-of-character. Although it is ‘Pamela’s turn to cook’ and the dinner bell is ringing, we don’t know for sure that Pamela is back.

EMOTIONAL CLOSURE

In short, we get an emotional closure (something bad has happened) without hermeneutic closure. Typical of lyrical short stories.

The imagery of the double-ness and the mirrored legs and Portia’s many different ages all rolled into one moment is especially interesting in the closing of the story.

And nothing has happened, really, that hasn’t happened before.

“Wilderness Tips”

What does that mean? Portia’s brand of ecological doomerism? An epiphany in which she enters a sublime, meditative state, sees the cycle of life from a high vantage point and, despite the extra insight, decides to do nothing?

MY TAKE

Pamela and Roland both despise George. They have two reasons for doing away with him: He’s messing with their family dynamics by marriage to one sister while continuing a decades long affair with another. They suspect George will ruthlessly take-over the family lodge somehow and sell it to offshore investors. So they plot how they might kill him and make it look like an accident. Pamela will invite him out on the lake. The weather forecast says a storm is brewing. The details of this are also left off the page, but we have a few clues that George will end up in the water.

From Roland’s point of view, George is compared to a few different animals, including a fish.

They seem to be beside a lake affected by acid rain, which would mean the lake is without life. Putting George into the water is a messed-up inversion on the environmental steps which happened after chemical imbalance: life was returned manually to the water.

When Portia wades in the water, seeing her double, she is looking through completely clear, acid rain affected lake water. She has a spiritual moment because although she doesn’t know what’s been plotted against her husband, she half knows things. All the way through this story, Margaret Atwood has encouraged readers to consider the meanings of things — the double meanings of words. At this point she has me considering any difference between doubleness and duplicity.

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

In Critical Insights: Alice Munro (2013, edited by Charles E. May) Carol Beran does a parallel reading of “Wilderness Tips” by Margaret Atwood and “White Dump” by Alice Munro. “Wilderness Tips” features three sisters, each of a different Canadian archetype. Munro’s “White Dump” is divided into three parts. Each part is from the perspective of a woman from a different generation (a grandmother, mother and daughter-in-law).