Postcolonialism and Canada: A Readingof Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Alias Grace
Historians, literary critics, and social scientists use the idea of post colonialism to examine the ways, both subtle and obvious, in which colonization affects the colonized society. Notwithstanding different time periods, different events and different effects that they consider, all postcolonial theorists and theory admit that colonialism continues to affect the former colonies after political independence. By exposing a culture’s colonial history, postcolonial theory empowers a society with the ability to value itself.
The most questionable aspect of the term “postcolonial” is the prefix of the word, “post. ” In order for there to be a postcolonial period, colonialism must have experienced a finite end within the colony. Despite the official recognition of national independence in their countries of origin, the books we have read suggest a more pervasive, continuing colonialism, a more prolonged interaction between British and its colonized societies. Canada is one of the major countries which have been under the colonial rule for a considerable period of time.
During the latter part of the twentieth century, Canadian writers have looked at the effects of colonialism on the original native population. The culture of the indigenous peoples and the oral tradition used, was for a long time on the verge of being eradicated, as the enforced language of the colonizer became the accepted norm. As many contemporary authors believe that they have been marginalized, they argue that they are similar to the tribal inhabitants, becoming “… spectators, not elements in what goes on” (Weibe: 274).
As Canadians they are forced to use a language which is for the most part alien, employing words which have meaning for a metropolitan audience but have little relevance within a Canadian context. This essay is an attempt to analyze and understand the quest for their own identity and theirs efforts at adapting to their new colonized identity. The texts in reference are Margaret Atwood’s novels, Surfacing and Alias Grace. The novel Surfacing demonstrates the complex question of identity for an English-speaking Canadian female.
Identity, for the main character, has become a problem because of her role as a victim of the colonizers. She has been colonized by men in the patriarchal society in which she grew up, by Americans and their cultural imperialism, or neo-colonialism as it has come to be known as, and the Euro-centric legacy that remains in her country although the physical presence of English and French rulers have gone. Feminist and postcolonialist theories share much common ground due to their examination of the voice, and the position of, the subaltern in society.
Their critiques of, and struggles against, domination by the white male has led to their alignment and discussions about their similar problems and strategies. Since the 1980s, there has emerged a divergent element to feminist postcolonial theory which has focused on the ‘double colonization’ that women colonized by both race and gender have suffered, leading to questions of which should be dealt with first, the discrimination they have suffered for not being white or not being male.
What is presented by Atwood’s Surfacing is the ambivalent nature of patriarchy, cultural imperialism and geographical colonization and how this combined colonial experience has left the victim with feelings of displacement and disconnectedness from their language, history and culture, which in turn has led to a fractured sense of self and a desperate need to regain and reclaim identity. The damage caused to those who have been colonized is explored by Atwood through her focus on how one individual has been affected, effects and issues of colonization, language, history and culture.
The examination of their problematic nature for the protagonist of the novel identifies their place in the feminist postcolonial discourse, their importance to an individual’s construction of identity, and how vital our sense of self is to our mental well-being. Surfacing does not deal with the physical act of colonizing a country, but instead it focuses on the aftermath and the mental colonizing that still exists, long after so called decolonization has occurred.
This I think is a much more insidious form of colonization and control as it leaves the colonized with words that do not express their ideas, a displacement from the country or cultural group to which they belong and a past which they feel disconnected from. Just like the feminist movement, postcolonialism has always been concerned with language because of its importance to identity formation and also its use as a weapon to subvert patriarchal and colonial powers.
It is recognized as one of the most fundamental aspects of our being and therefore fundamental to these discourses that recognize the importance of identity. As the Post-Colonial Studies Reader states, ‘… the colonial process itself begins in language. ‘ (P. S. R: 283) The reason for this is its ability to control, either by displacing native languages or imposing certain standards and signs that become the ‘norm’.
Language is the medium we use to establish order and describe our world and if this is made problematic, or displaced, then our relationship with our world and our position within it also becomes chaotic and unclear. The question then arises of how to overcome such control and that results in two main solutions, either rejection or subversion. Recently theorists and writers have tended to opt for the latter, using language as a set of signs that are invested with meaning, and if new meanings are assigned and new uses invested, then it is virtually changed into a new language, one that remains recognizable.
Atwood incorporates many of these ideas about language into her novel and from the outset we are made aware of the whole question of language for Canadians. The issue is initially presented to us, and indeed to all who travel from English to French Canada, or vice versa, by the sign that reads ‘Bienvenue’ on one side and ‘Welcome’ on the other. This sets up one problem of communication that exists for Canadians, who, because of their colonial history share a country but do not have a single common native language.
There thus arises a very serious and personal communication problem, which is presented in the narrator’s mother and Paul’s wife, described for us are two neighbours sitting together in awkward silence because they have not the power to communicate to one another, they do not speak each other’s language. Atwood then goes on to show that the inability to communicate and own a language is not necessarily that of speaking different tongues, as her fellow Canadian, Dennis Lee writes in, Writing the Colonial Space, ‘the words I knew said Britain and they said America, but they did not say my home. (P. S. R. : 398)
She constantly refers to her inability to communicate, even to those closest to her, ‘the language is wrong’ and ‘it was the language again, I couldn’t use it because it wasn’t mine. ‘ She feels alienated from the words that have been passed down to her, feeling they have not come from her own experience, her own values or ideas, but from the white European or American male who essentially has had a different set of experiences and invested different meanings and ideas in the words that have come to produce and explain, not only his world, but the world in general.
The notion of language as a set of meanings is demonstrated in the novel through the cultural differences that words acquire and denote, highlighted by the narrator’s examples; how the worst words in any language are those we are most afraid of, in French these are religious words and in English they are connected with the body and how in some countries the innocent Canadian emblem of a beaver has become a synonym for a female sexual organ. The protagonist, who, feels that she cannot express herself and that language has been hijacked by those in control, must choose between rejection or subversion.
There are some convincing arguments for the former proposed by Audre Lorde who argues that, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. ‘ (P. S. R. : 264), but it has become accepted that realistically, subversion is the more effective and practical method, a notion that Chinua Achebe has been both criticized and revered for championing and one that Margaret Atwood agrees with.
Her choice of appropriation rather than rejection can be seen in the picture she drew as a child, employing the ultimate in binary oppositions to illustrate the idea, one that Elaine Showalter also promoted in Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness, that in order to render the fight equal we must be equipped with the same resources, ‘if the devil was allowed a tail and horns, God needed them also. ‘ , once we have them we can begin to use them to our advantage and appropriate them for our needs.
As with all problems the first step to solution is a recognition that there is a problem which occurs during the course of the novel and progresses to an initial rejection of language and words, a move to silence, a state that is presented as primitive, pre-colonial in every sense, a truth that remaining there will achieve and change nothing, for that is not how the world is any longer. We are left at the end of the novel with the anticipation of her new voice, one that she has chosen, one that is appropriated and understandable.
Language is not the only thing in the novel that needs to be appropriated by the oppressed; their history and their past must also be reclaimed, and in some cases almost completely rewritten. History is another means of control, developed by European nations during modern colonization to explain and order a world, much of which they had little knowledge or comprehension of, but which nevertheless became, ‘a construction of world reality. To have a history individualizes us, it explains our role in the world and without it, it is almost as though we did not exist. What feminist and postcolonialist theorists have recognized, is that history has been written by the victor, the suppressor and the idea of history as a single narrative has now become defunct. The focus is more on the petit histoire’s then the Grande histoire’s, on the periphery rather then the centre.
As the narrator of Surfacing demonstrates, a single version of history allows for falsehood and construction and as the feminists and postcolonialists must deconstruct those stories already told and reinstate those untold, so must we, along with our protagonist do the same with her story, because as Derek Walcott points out, ‘History is subject to a fitful muse, memory. (P. S. R. : 370) Our nameless ‘heroine’ has marginalised the painful memories from her past and only reveals, to both the readers and her companions, what she deems necessary; because we have no other alternative viewpoint, initially we have no choice but to believe her tales of husbands and abandoned children.
It is the literal journey to the site of her past that initiates the metaphorical one into her subconscious, which in turn forces her to confront certain ghosts and to re-examine what she has become convinced is true, the lies she has told herself and those that others and society have impressed upon her, such as there never having been any important women artists. Slowly, she becomes awakened to the unreal nature of history and memory and thus begins the re-examination of her past, ‘I must be more careful of my memories, I have to be sure they’re my own and not the memories of other people telling me what I felt, how I acted, what I said.
The narrator, in her formative years, is consistently told, and therefore grows to believe, that all women should be housewives and that they should grow up to look like the pictures she cuts from the magazines. Once her awakening to the falsehoods that she has both invented and been taught she starts to witness the process of rejection and finally of, reclamation of those memories and histories that had been ousted.
But before achieving this, she travels to a place beyond, or before, history that is reminiscent of a pre-colonial Canada and one of the major themes of Canadian literature, a place in the wilderness, a place of nature, a literal place her father chose so ‘he could recreate, not the settled farm life of his own father but that of the earliest ones who arrived when there was nothing but forest and no ideologies but the ones they brought with them. , and a metaphorical place from where she can retrace her/history’s steps and this time from a cleansed and renewed perspective. She surfaces from her past and her acceptance and acknowledgment of it is presented as vital in her process of regeneration. So, our protagonist reclaims her language and her past but she, and her fellow Canadians, are also in danger of losing all sense of a cultural identity in the face of the overpowering Americans.
This cultural imperialism has recently come to be considered under the the term neo-colonialism, which was coined by Kwame Nkrumah to describe the condition of economic dependence that many post-colonial countries found themselves in. Although this is not explored in any detail in the novel, we are reminded of it when the protagonist is talking about her artistic freedom and that even though she is illustrating a book of Quebec Folk Tales she must make it appeal to the English and American markets, Canada’s publishing industry is not economically sustainable alone.
The term, whilst still used its original sense, now denote any form of control over former colonies and, most recently, to describe the form of imperialism that the new superpowers of the world, most especially the United States, have inflicted including the global capitalist economy that it devised and the cultural domination that Atwood reacts against. Whilst America’s global cultural and economic imperialism has placed a McDonalds in the four corners of the earth, and almost everywhere in between, it has bullied and oppressed Canadians most consistently and to great effect.
Margaret Atwood writes in, Survival that she only realised there was a problem with the Canadian cultural identity when she went to America to study, there she heard the comparisons that were being made, comparisons that left Canada looking dull, middle of the road and banal, a place devoid of any culture or literature of their own. Survival seeks to change this belief and, along with her own fiction, it is fair to say that Atwood has helped change the face of her country’s literature.
The rivalry between the two countries, cultural or otherwise is seen everywhere and there have been many attempts by Canadians to reclaim their cultural heritage through history, literature and art. But, as is evoked by the novel, this is not necessarily enough, it is not all about maple leaves versus stars and stripes but is, most crucially, a state of mind, ‘If you look like them and talk like them, then you are them. ‘
The unwanted presence of the Americans is consistent throughout the book, from the stuffed moose at the petrol station with the American flag to the constant reference to them as Other, them as the enemy. David, the character who is most prone to denouncing the, ‘Bloody fascist pig Yanks’ is the one who is most like them, with his desire to control and desire for excess and his desire to control and capture that which is not his to take, like the protagonist’s, and the many other women’s, bodies and the ‘random samples’ he collects.
He is of the same breed as the Canadians who are initially mistaken for Americans, and who have killed the herons, as though they were theirs to destroy, and the developers and holiday makers who take over and ruin the natural world and the wilderness, eventually turning it into their idea of how things should be, as though it were theirs to order. Throughout the novel there is a definite condemnation of this Americanization of people and places but it is most poignantly and symbolically demonstrated with the narrator’s final rejection of her ‘friends’, her clothes and any food that is not natural.
She rejects neo-colonialism in every form and travels to a pre-colonial space that she must visit in order to return with an understanding of herself and her identity as a Canadian and as a woman. Her ‘surfacing’ is made possible by, firstly rejecting all that seeks to colonies her and then subverting the forces they use such as language, history and culture to reject her identity as a victim. Alias Grace is one of the more recent novels, written by Margaret Atwood.
The novel is, as Atwood writes in her afterword, ‘a work of fiction, although it is based on reality'(538) centered on the case of Victorian Canada’s most celebrated murderess, Grace Marks, an immigrant Irish servant girl. The manner in which Atwood imaginatively reconfigures historical fact in order to create a subversive text which ‘writes back’ to both the journals of a Canadian literary ancestor, and to Canada’s nineteenth century self -image, illustrates what critic Linda Hutcheon has called ‘the use of irony as a powerful subversive rule in the rethinking and redressing of history by both the post-modern and post-colonial artist ‘(131).
Atwood’s interest in the Mark’s case was first raised by her work on the journals of Susanna Moodie, a 19th-century emigrant to Canada. In a disparaging memoir entitled Roughing it in the Bush , published in London and addressed to an English audience, Moodie concentrated on the ‘otherness’ and ‘foreignness’ of Canada to refined European sensibilities, thus emphasizing the privilege of ‘home’ over ‘native’ and ‘metropolitan’ over ‘provincial’. (Litvack: 120). Life in the Clearings, Moodie’s sequel, intended to show the ‘more civilized’ side of Canada west, contained an account of her visit to the notorious Grace Marks in a Toronto Asylum.
Moodie portrayed Grace as a shrieking, capering madwoman, and concluded her account with the pious hope that this ‘raving maniac’ would find some ‘peace at the feet of Jesus’ in the next world. Alias Grace can therefore be read both as a fictionalised account of a notorious true life case and also as a genuine instance of post-colonial ‘writing back’, as one of Canada’s most prominent female novelists, a leading exponent of modern Canadian literature, significantly revises a tale recounted by a female literary antecedent who spent most of her time unfavourably comparing the Canadian colony to ‘Home’.
In 1843, at the tender age of 16, (the real life) Grace Marks was sentenced to life imprisonment for her role in the brutal murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper/lover Nancy Montgomery at Kinnear’s rural homestead outside Toronto. James Mac Dermott , Kinnear’s farmhand, was hanged for the crime; Grace’s youth and sex meant that her death sentence was commuted. As Atwood makes clear in the novel, no one except Grace really knew what happened on the day of the murders.
The co-accused gave several differing accounts of the event in question, and contemporary newspaper reports were riddled with contradiction and speculation, some of which probably influenced the manner in which the accused themselves framed their accounts. The novel is set mainly in 1859, when Grace, having spent some time in an asylum, is now a thirty something, long serving inmate of a Toronto Penitentiary, so trusted that she is permitted to works as a seamstress and servant in the adjoining home of the governor.
Enter (fictional) American Doctor Simon Jordan, a young psychiatrist who is determined to probe the depths of Grace’s psyche through a series of detailed interviews, intended to help him decide if she was sane or insane at the time of the killings. The bulk of the novel is taken up by Grace’s ‘recollections’ of past events. Grace is one of Canada’s white settlers, a Protestant immigrant from the North of Ireland.
Forced from Ireland by poverty and the shiftlessness of their good for nothing father, the Mark’s family were transported to Canada on a ship that was like ‘a slum in motion’ (130) , which ‘brought logs eastwards from the Canada’s, and emigrants westwards the other way, and both were viewed in much the same light, as cargo to be ferried’ (130).
In Grace’s account of her passage from Ireland we can see an illustration of the colonial process at work, as the natural resources of the colonized nation are ferried out for imperialist profit, whilst the white settlers, traditional agents of colonial rule, are ferried in in order to cement the Mother Country’s claim on the land (Loomba: 7) The Toronto of the 1840s in which Grace and her family arrive is a melting pot of diverse cultures.
The city’s port seems to Grace like a modern day Babel, filled with Europeans of every nationality. The poor quarters of the city teem with disease, poverty, and exploitation – ironically, the very circumstances which many of the new arrivals had sought to escape from in the first place. Grace manages to find work as a paid servant in a series of domestic positions, which, for a woman of her background and class was probably the most palatable form of employment.
The Upper Canada rebellion of 1837 has created a scarcity of dependable servants, and Grace, under the capable tutelage of her Canadian born friend, Mary Whitney, soon becomes privy to the many tricks of the trade, the most important being that a servant should be able to ‘have the work done without it being seen to be done’. There are few secrets a master can keep from his servants, who have the run of the house, and access to the most private of affairs – a servants job is simultaneously both a marginalised and yet privileged position in society.
It is in this tension between master and servant, and the lower and upper classes that the dark seeds of violence are sown, for , despite Mary Whitney’s confident claim of class mobility in this new country, that ‘on this side of the ocean folks rose in the world by hard work, and not by who their Grandfather was'(182), Canada was still a nation divided by class, driven to replicate the distinctions between classes that emanated from Britain, the imperial centre of power.
Grace’s version of events up to and including the murders is ‘pragmatic and perceptive, aware of politics and the duplicities of manners, subtle and fascinating in its focus on tangible detail, but exercising also a silent doubleness, and intricate awareness of what she [Grace] should not and cannot say’ (Van Herk: 111). The trope of doubleness is echoed in the structure of the text.
Each new section is prefaced by extracts from Victorian Literature of the time, from Moodie’s recollections of her encounter with Grace to a poem by Christina Rossetti, and, the most ironically of all, the extract from Coventry Patmore’s paean to feminine goodness and domesticity, The Angel in the House, which appears directly after Grace’s disjointed account of the murders.
The ironic contrast between Victorian ideals of womanhood encapsulated in the extracts and the sordid series of events recounted by Grace, a real life Victorian female, creates a purposely subversive contrast between cosy stereotype and brutal actuality. In her interviews with Jordan, Grace uses her knowledge of popular literature to shape an affecting tale for her one-man audience (LeClair: 2) Grace combines the specificity of local colour and the ideality of romance, heart rending tales of poverty with the genteel stereotype of helpless womanhood.
Just as Canada the nation must come to terms with the ‘trope of doubleness’ – the dual history that Hutcheon characterises as the mark of the colony- Grace, the white settler, weaves into her initially believable tale (believable I must add, because the average reader is predisposed to trust Grace’s beguiling tale, just like Jordan) a ‘possibly fictitious inner narrative that deconstructs the outer, happier, fiction of Alias Grace'(LeClair: 2).
Grace is thus using the pervasive ideology of the day to fashion a ‘revolt within the power field of the dominant culture’, characterized by Hutcheon as a hallmark of both postmodernism and postcoloniality (Hutcheon: 134). In her after word to the novel, Atwood writes that ‘the true character of the historical Grace Marks remains an enigma’. The same can ultimately be said of her fictional counterpart, about whom we really know nothing, save for what she has told us herself.
Indeed, all but the most perceptive first-time readers will end Alias Grace with the initially disconcerting sense that they have just fallen victim to a literary sleight -of- hand as smoothly executed as Grace’s (all too possible) deception of Jordan. Perhaps the most pervasive evidence for this suspicion arises from the many references to Grace’s most common activity, sewing.
The exchange between Simon Jordan and Grace’s ally, the Reverend Verringer, emphasises the manner in which Atwood’s novel is in some ways a ‘writing back’ to Moodie, but also casts a significant light on Grace’s entire narrative, by suggesting that patchwork quilts are not the only things she constructs from virtual scratch. The concept of the binaries of colonizer/colonized is highly problematic since it constitutes ‘the colonized’ as a singularity. Accordingly, postcolonial literature and theory, by definition the very embodiment of the discourse of these binaries, must be read and taught by deconstructing them, “by focusing on hierarchies of class, caste and gender and reading them in terms of their specificities of history and culture”.
This reading requires critical familiarity with historical and cultural contexts, for political reasons. Most important are things such as poverty or social inequality, the political vision of the text, its engagement with local realities, and the racist or antiracist perspectives of the text. The two texts studied here are perfect examples of postcolonial texts and all the typical qualities are found within them. Margaret Atwood has correctly established Canada as a postcolonial country and subtly discussed the double identities of Canadian people, both within and without Canada and outlined their problems of searching for a foothold of their own in a world full of chaos and confusing identities.