Lois Lost in Landscapes
In Margaret Atwood’s “Death by Landscape,” the main character, Lois, is trapped in her past because of a tragic experience at summer camp when she was younger. On a canoeing trip, she and her best friend, Lucy, separate from the group to investigate a lookout point and Lucy mysteriously vanishes. Now, Lois’ apartment is practically wallpapered in landscape paintings, reminding her constantly of that horrible memory. Her relationship with the landscape paintings indicate that she is trapped within those memories, and needs those paintings to feel that Lucy is still with her. Analyses of landscapes, time, and symbolic objects by Yi-Fu Tuan and Edward S. Casey help us to understand the way in which Lois remains in the past by surrounding herself with the landscape paintings.
On the canoeing trip, the girls stop to make camp at a marked lookout point. Lucy and Lois decide to venture up the cliff, in which “spindly balsam and spruce trees grow to either side” (Atwood 111). They’re in the middle of the forest, on top of a cliff, where no one can see or hear them. Tuan explains that “in a dense forest environment… aural space is less focused” and that “forest sounds are not precisely located” (Tuan 119). This is because of the many trees and other dense geological structures that turn the space into “a dense net of place with no overall structure” (ibid). It’s not hard to understand then, how someone can easily go missing, or how, had Lucy fallen off the lookout into the water, why it was that “there had been no sound of falling rock; there had been no splash” (Atwood 114).
Lucy reminds herself of this moment every day by looking at her landscape paintings. All of the paintings are “pictures of convoluted tree trunks… of a lake with rough, bright, sparsely wooded cliffs… of yellow autumn woods” (Atwood 100). Lois surrounded herself with the images; the walls were covered in “blocks of pictures, above and beside one another” (99). Lois preferred them like this. She wanted these pictures to be prominent because they were important to her, and having them cover her walls “[had] more of an impact” than if they were few and farther apart (ibid). In this way, Lois made it so that she could never leave the lookout point where she lost her best friend, never escape her memory, and remain in her past forever.
Throughout the story, there are many different implications of time passing. A very clear indicator is that the story revolves around a summer camp. Because the girls were apart for a full ten months out of the year, “when they met in the summer, it was always a shock… It was like watching someone grow up in jolts” (105). Lois also thinks to herself at some point that her and Lucy’s names “date [them]” and that “now [they were] obsolete” (ibid). These things indicate that, while in camp, time actually felt as though it were passing very quickly. It is only later on that Lois finds herself stuck in the past. In “Time in Experiential Space,” Tuan explains that the different perceptions of time are either located in objective space or in subjective space. He says that “subjective space belongs to the mental realm,” while things like “cyclical time [such as] the movement of the sun… [are] located on objective space” (Tuan 120). This is interesting in Lois’ case, because her sense of the physical passing of time—what should be located in objective space—has been taken over by her subjective space in which her haunting memories reside. Atwood makes this notion of Lois’ awareness of time particularly prominent when, just before Lucy disappears, “Lois looks at her watch” (111). Clearly, when Lucy was still around and the girls were in camp, Lois was very much aware of the passing of time, for “she [was] the watch-minder” while “Lucy [was] careless of time” (ibid). It is only after Lucy disappears and Lois is left to carry out her life without her friend that she forces herself to stay locked in that moment instead of moving on.
Tuan then goes on to explain the significance of landscape paintings. He reminds us that upon looking at landscape paintings, “we almost automatically arrange its components” to be able to set them in terms of our own lives (Tuan 123). We picture ourselves inside the painting, and “imagine ourselves traveling down [the countryside] road” in the picture (ibid). Distinguished professor and phenomenologist Edward S. Casey also explains that landscapes are more than just representations of geological formations. Rather, when painting the landscape, “the artist’s body… displays its sense of the place it paints” and not just “the landscape’s precise contours” (Casey 261). We look at landscape paintings, and become a part of the scene. Casey explains that in these portrayals of wide horizons and lush trees, he “feel[s] that [he is] already over there, out there” in the scene (265). When Lois looks at the paintings in her apartment, she too is transported back into the scene that they represent, for when she “looks at her pictures… it’s the same landscape they paddled through” (Atwood 117). Of course, these images are not paintings of the same lookout on which Lucy and Lois stood years before. But to Lois, they were exactly the same, and she chose to surround herself with the images so as to constantly live within them, and be transported back to that crucial, tragic moment in her life.
Casey also calls these broad images worldscapes, in which the image is a “non-enclosed, ever-expanding totality” much like scenes described in Lois’ paintings of lakes that stretch out before her as seen from high up places (Casey 265). He explains that “what matters in a worldscape is the… panoramic sense of endless space and… time” (ibid). This is important because for Lois, her landscape paintings represent an endless time for Lucy. Lois is traumatized by the fact that Lucy’s fate is unclear, and therefore feels the need to ensure that she live on in some way. The paintings give Lucy endless time in which to live and last in Lois’ life. Lois feels that “every one of [the paintings] is a picture of Lucy” (Atwood 118). Because the landscape paintings are there, Lucy “is in Lois’ apartment” and “she is entirely alive” in Lois’ mind (ibid). It is for this reason that Lois feels the need to remain stuck within her memory of Lucy and that dreadful moment on the canoe trip. If Lois were to move on and risk forgetting what that moment meant to her, she would risk losing Lucy for the second time, this time forever. Lois chooses to surround herself with her paintings so that she can stay in the landscapes, and so that Lucy can peer out through them and continue to live within them.
Through her landscape paintings, Lois keeps herself trapped and surrounded by the memories of her and Lucy at the lookout over the lake. Casey and Tuan help us to understand how and why it is that Lois feels this connection to the landscapes by explaining that these images are not just representations of a scene. Rather, Lois’ affinity for the paintings shows us “the process by which… a story gets attached to an object” (Casey 14). She demonstrates “the habit of mind that looks behind objects to events, and sees in objects a sign of something else” (ibid). Behind those paintings lies Lucy’s story and hence what remains of her life. For this reason, Lois must keep the paintings close to her, in order to keep herself within the past and Lucy within the present.