Canadian Writer Margaret Atwood would argue that every country in the world has a single unifying and informing symbol, to act as a belief system that keeps everyone together and working for common ends. These unifying symbols manifest in the literature produce by authors and literary thinkers; whether or not it is done consciously or subconsciously. According to Atwood, in the United States “Frontier” is the unifying symbol, the exploration of new land, the west and independence from imperial powers. In the United Kingdom the “Island” is a distinct symbol of common national sentiments, the idea of the central island nation controlling its lands and wealth from behind the safety of its metaphorical walls; this symbol is perfectly represented by the medieval castles and fortresses of that nation. With these examples in mind Atwood states that the unifying symbol for Canadian Lifestyle, and consequently literature, is “Survival”.
As a result of the Canada’s geographical shape, its vast landmass and bitter climate, as well as the nation’s origins as subordinate to imperial rule, Survival becomes the common thread which bonds the lives thought and experiences of all Canadians. It is more real to us than the frontier or the island. In her essay, ” Survival : A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature”, Atwood goes into great detail about this idea of survival and victimization, she outlines her four victim positions with the intention of increasing understanding of Canadian literature, and how these guidelines apply to anyone, Canadian or otherwise. In “The Watcher”, by Guy Vanderhaeghe, Atwood’s concepts can be used to identify and understand the position of Vanderhaeghe’s main character, Charlie Bradley, as well as increase understanding of Vanderhaeghe’s work as a piece of distinctly Canadian fictional Literature.
Atwood’s four victim positions can be used to understand characters from Canadian fiction from the distinctly Canadian point of view, survival. The hero of most Canadian fiction is the survivor, the main character or protagonist survives where the other characters do not, or they survive one ordeal only to succumb to something else, “The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival; he has little after his ordeal that he did not have before, except gratitude for having escaped with his life.”(Atwood 33). The Canadian protagonist or survivor doesn’t portray the myth that they can beat adversity to better themselves or their situation, rather they are no better of than before their ordeal, or maybe worse, by are fortunate to have escaped with their lives. The survivor is therefore inherently and unavoidably a victim in one form or another, and Atwood’s position can be use to identify and grasp a greater understanding of the survivor character, his actions, thoughts, and decisions.
To understand Charlie Bradley one must first understand the four basic victim positions. A person of the first victim position is in denial of the fact that they are the victim, usual their slightly elevated status above their peers makes them feel that anyone can succeed if they wanted to and those that don’t are just lazy. A person from the second victim position acknowledges their victimization but resigns to it because of feelings that it is the result of uncontrollable exterior forces such as fate, they feel their position as a victim is inevitable and cannot be changed. Individuals of the third position acknowledge their victimization but refuse to accept the role is inevitable as in position two.
However a person in position three doesn’t use their frustration at their victimization in a creative manner, they don’t use their energy to change their position they just loath themselves and are jealous of those who are not victims. A person in position four is what Atwood calls “a creative non victim” (Atwood 38). For these individuals victimization is not a reality, they use their energy to rise above the existence of victimization and are positively creative with their situation.
Vanderhaeghe’s main character from his short story, “The Watcher”,
Charlie Bradley fits perfectly into Atwood’s definition of the second victim position. Charlie Acknowledges his victimization but feels there is nothing he can do about it. Evidence of Charlie’s position can be found numerous times throughout the text. From the very first sentence of Vanderhaeghe’s story one can cast type Charlie. He says, “I suppose it was having a bad chest that turned me into an observer, a watcher, at an early age.” (Vanderhaeghe 207).
From this statement you already know that Charlie blames his situation as being an observer on his bad chest, an uncontrollable external for, he cannot control his sickness and so resigns to be a victim of it. The rest of the story centers around Charlie’s talent for observing events but never participating, the situation he deals with when he is shipped of to his grandmas farm and forced to deals with his mentally unstable aunt and her freeloading boyfriend Thompson. Charlie fancies himself a spy observing the details and doing nothing. More evidence of his position comes from thoughts on his aunt’s situation, Charlie says, “… Evelyn, was evidence enough of how firmly bound we all are to the wretched wheel of life and its stumbling desires.” (Vanderhaeghe 221). Again resigning everything to the whims of fate.
Charlie’s true position as the surviving victim comes at the end of the story when he is forced into the game, no longer a watcher, and must chose between taking the side of his Grandma or that of Thompson in identifying the assailants, who identity he does know to be the Ogden Brothers hired by his Grandma to beat up Thompson. “And now he is asking me to save him, to take a risk, when I was more completely in her clutches than he would ever be. He forgot I was a child. I depended on her.” (Vanderhaeghe 239). Charlie admits to withholding the truth to save himself, even if it meant hurting Thompson. Charlie is the survivor, he is the victim of circumstance be he has the foresight to save himself even if it isn’t the right thing to do.
Canadian short stories are full of survivors, the characters created by Vanderhaeghe as well as those of many authors face different challenges than the characters of literature from other nations. Canada is a nation of survivors, if only just barely. Margaret Atwood is one Canadian writer who fully understands this survivor position and the levels of victimization that come along with it. Canadian heroes are the ones who face adversity to gain something, but those who are pounded by the outside world and are just able to have on to their lives.
This situation, at least metaphorically, will be familiar to all Canadians and the great cross section of writers from various cultural backgrounds. Their diversity only reinforcing the notion that this country, the land changes you, give us all something in common, that unifying symbol that Atwood praises as the center of everything Canadian. Survival. As Atwood aptly puts it, “A writer’s job is not to tell a society how it ought to live but how it does live.”(Atwood 42)
Atwood, Margaret. “Survival.” Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi, 1972. 25-43.
Vanderhaeghe, Guy. “The Watcher.” Man Descending. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1982.