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The Top 10 Lines from Margaret Atwood’s “Survival”

The Top 10 Lines from Margaret Atwood's Survival

By Caryn Cathart

Initially published in the early ’70s, Margaret Atwood’s Survival dared to think critically about Canadian literature when its existence alone was a matter of fierce debate. In the book, Atwood tries to locate the central preoccupations of our poetry and fiction, and she succeeds by providing whip-smart criticism written in her distinctly provocative voice. Despite being dated (our literature has certainly broadened, and so has our cultural and national identity), I believe Survival should be required reading for any CanLit aficionado.

I’m actually amazed that this book didn’t find its way into my hands sooner—it could have easily lived on my bedside table during my entire university career. However, don’t let its academic tilt dissuade you. Atwood’s analysis is totally readable (she calls Survival a “layman’s guide” to Canadian literature), and it’s made all the more accessible by her fervent personal asides. All in all, Survival is wicked fun, and that’s a rare complement for any work of criticism.

Margaret Atwood’s Survival dared to think critically about Canadian literature when its existence alone was a matter of fierce debate.

Now I could ramble on with more high praise, or I could try to summarize some of Atwood’s key ideas, but I really don’t think I can do the book justice. So without further ado, here are my top ten favourite lines from Margaret Atwood’s Survival. (Consider the following a platter of delectable samplings!)

1. “If you were a rocky, watery northern country, cool in climate, large in geographical expanse, small but diverse in population, and with a huge aggressive neighbour to the south, why wouldn’t you have concerns that varied from those of the huge aggressive neighbour? . . . To justify the teaching of Canadian literature as such, here and now, thirty-four years later [2003], you’d still have to start from the same axioms: i) it exists, and ii) it’s distinct.”

2. “One could ask: Why keep it afloat? Why give your blood? The general answer is the same as it always was: a country needs to hear its own voices, if it is to become or to remain an aware society and a functioning democracy.”

3. “There is a sense in Canadian literature that the true and only season here is winter: the others are either preludes to it or mirages concealing it.”

4. “The danger in ‘adopting’ the Indians as ancestors is that you may identify with them as victims rather than as real inhabitants of a land.”

5. “If [an immigrant] does wipe away his ethnic origin, there is no new ‘Canadian’ identity ready for him to step into: he is confronted only by a nebulosity, a blank; no ready-made ideology is provided for him.”

Margaret Atwood Survival Quote

6. “All Canadian revolutions are failed revolutions.”

7. “But if the enemy [the government] in its lawful authority is not really an enemy but a necessary and mitigated evil, a fact of life, then the construction of ‘revolutionary’ heroes becomes difficult; you get not so much a hero as one who has allowed himself to be a victim of idiot circumstance, like a man who goes swimming in a thunderstorm.”

8. “The Great Canadian Baby is a literary institution; it could in some cases be termed the Baby Ex Machina, since it is lowered at the end of the book to solve problems for the characters which they obviously can’t solve for themselves.”

9. “If the central European experience is sex and the central mystery ‘what goes on in the bedroom,’ and the central American experience is killing and the central mystery is ‘what goes on in the forest’ (or in the slum streets), surely the central Canadian experience is death and the central mystery is ‘what goes on in the coffin’.”

10. “[W]hen I discovered the shape of the national tradition I was depressed, and it’s obvious why: it’s a fairly tough tradition to be saddled with, to have to come to terms with. But I was exhilarated too. . . . A tradition doesn’t necessarily exist to bury you: it can also be used as material for new departures.”

A version of this article was originally posted at Ellwood Drive and then updated for House of Anansi’s Blog.

Survival by Margaret Atwood

When first published in 1972, Survival was considered the most startling book ever written about Canadian literature. Since then, it has continued to be read and taught, and it continues to shape the way Canadians look at themselves. Distinguished, provocative, and written in effervescent, compulsively readable prose, Survival is simultaneously a book of criticism, a manifesto, and a collection of personal and subversive remarks. Margaret Atwood begins by asking: “What have been the central preoccupations of our poetry and fiction?” Her answer is “survival and victims.”

Atwood applies this thesis in twelve brilliant, witty, and impassioned chapters; from Moodie to MacLennan to Blais, from Pratt to Purdy to Gibson, she lights up familiar books in wholly new perspectives. This new edition features a foreword by the author.

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