The Landlady by Margaret Atwood

Atwood, author of “The Landlady”, has been deeply involved with nationalism and the rise of independent cultural values in Canada. Stating quite categorically, she objects to being classified as an American poet although she has spent a significant amount of time in the United States. She objects to being called a feminist poet too. Yet she has contributed tremendously to the position and status of women by writing constantly about them. She is passionate observer of Canadian life and takes the feminine view point deliberately. Her novels and poetry most often portray the man-woman relationship and the destructive forces it can wield.

In “The Landlady”, Atwood has caricatured the landlady as a woman without any sensitivity or sensibility. The poet here describes the woman as an inquisitive lady who enters the lodger’s room without permission. Highlighting the bossy nature of the landlady, the poet says that she (the landlady) bosses over her tenants’ life and even reprimands her for her “meagre eating”. The landlady has been described so strict woman that the poor tenant cannot escape the landlady’s clutches with the result that her dreams are turned into nightmares when she finds her walking—“over a vast face/which is the land-/lady’s.”


The Landlady Analysis

In the poem, The Landlady, which can be read in full here, Margaret Atwood is at her most humorous. This is a poem from the collection “Animals in That Country”. Here Atwood follows a totally uneven verse-form, but she maintains the same precision of words where many phrases are particularly incisive. The poem opens with a single line, “This is the lair of the landlady” that has a threatening ring to it. Lair means an enclosure for animal; their hiding or resting place.

The landlady is never named, but remains a “raw voice” (which means raucous, unmusical and harsh tones with a note of command) and is referred to as “She”. There is a lot of sound in this house from the “continuous henyard/squabble going on below” (constant noise from the quarrelsome and noisy atmosphere in the house) to the way “she slams/my days like doors”. When the poet says: “the bicker of blood through the head,” she means that the noise of her surroundings gets on her nerves as she tries to write.

She is obviously a great factor of annoyance in the lodge’s life, an impediment to her thoughts so that scholarly work in his house is certainly difficult. Moreover, the tenant claims, “I rent my time” but “Nothing is mine”.  The play with language is very evident in the bossy woman’s actions of slamming about the house and the suffering tenant to “rent’ time for writing. Describing the bossy nature of the landlady, the poet says that the landlady is everywhere, and even impedes all that I do – “she presides over my meagre eating, /generates/the light for eyestrain.” By “I rent my time,” the poet means that she replaces her “room” with the time she needs to devote to her work.

There is an all-pervading quality about the landlady that makes her a caricature devoid of sensitivity or sensibility. She is inquisitive and enters without permission:

as the smells

that bulge in under doorsill.

She bosses over her tenant’s life and reprimands her for her “meagre eating”. Yet she exercises economical constraints by providing “the light for eye-strain”.

Even in sleep, the tenant cannot escape her clutches, in fact, dreams turn to nightmares when the former finds herself walking–over a vast face/ which is the land-lady ‘s. The meaning of vast face is the widespread area (where the landlady seems ever present).

There is an interesting split in the last word which appears deliberately on two lines. Atwood must be talking of other surfaces that are travelled, other conscious and unconscious realities that are traversed in search of selfhood and independence.

That landlady “is a bulk, a knot” demonstrates a problem of immense weight.  Even with a tremendous exercise of thought, the tenant cannot reach her desire to “see through her”.

This phrase contains a clever pun, as in the idiomatic sense it means the desire to disregard the woman’s presence, and also to recognize her for what she is. In terms of the search for identity this becomes a very real conflict when an individual cannot find what one is searching for because there are limitations to one’s expectations.

Moreover, it is often difficult to recognize or accept what one already is. Atwood may be throwing a barb at the approaches intellectuals take in such a dilemma – “my senses are cluttered by perception”. Here “senses” and “perception” are separate entities, and one confuses the other.

Back in the literal word, the tenant must tolerate this human impediment that is impossible to remove, while the alternatives of ignoring or comprehending her are equally difficult.

She stands there, a raucous fact

blocking my way:

immutable, a slab

of what is real.

solid as bacon.

She remains “a rancous fact” as “solid as bacon”. The poet has gently called the  landlady a “pig” not only in terms of size, but also for her irritating behavior. The humour becomes somewhat satirical towards the end, and there is some stereotyping about the typical landlady keeping strict control over her student-inmates.

This is a situation Atwood probably experienced in her days in Boston, and even British landladies have the same reputation.

The poet uses sound and animal imagery from a different perspective; this time the animals are all domestic ones. They fix the almost anecdotal recall of a relationship between a nosy older woman managing the life of her young tenant.


Works & Life of Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood, acclaimed as a novelist of the highest order, considers herself a poet first. Born and brought up in Ottawa, she travelled a lot in Ontario and Quebec with her entomologist father. She developed her lasting emotions for the Canadian wilderness through these experiences. She learnt about middle-class norms, the ideals of Christianity and found the stark materialism of North American society a veritable contrast to deeper moral values. It is because of these contrasts that Atwood makes her characters travel through a spiritual wasteland before they can attain maturity.

Atwood’s poetry focuses on the question of identity with as much passion as Neruda and Walcott, all of whom share very special and meaningful relationship with words that only a recessive reading of their poetry can highlight further. There is a style and force in Atwood’s writing that has a peculiarity of its own because she is precise in delineating her subject-matter, and she very rarely tells an actual story. She performs mental transformations of identity as she looks at the  Canadian pioneers, the displayed American Indians, the animals in the forest, the  savage land buffeted by adverse weather conditions and, of course, at the changing roles of women.

Atwood is most interested in the concepts of self-awareness and self-consciousness, and the ways in which they are displayed through space and time. There is constant metamorphosis in her image, but a recurring cycle is maintained, where the same metaphors, similes and personification resonate through her work across genres.

Her images are her lenses through which she perceives life as a force so persistent that it too needs to constantly change into other forms of self-expression. Some of the great poetry collection Atwood has includes:  Double Persephone (1961), The Circle Game, Expeditions (1965), Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein (1966), The Animals in That Country (1968), Procedures for Underground (1970), Power Politics (1971), You Are Happy (1974), Two-Headed Poems (1978), Love Songs of a Terminator (1983), Interlunar (1984), Eating Fire: Selected Poems, 1965–1995 (UK,1998), The Door (2007) and so on.

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