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It is widely believed that the historical events and encounters of a nation shape the mindset and attitudes of the individuals belonging to that particular community. There are many such examples, with groups of people behaving differently based on the experiences they have had throughout time, on the conditions they have lived in, or on the resources available to them.
In order to find such examples, it is enough for someone to open a history textbook, and to pay close attention to the conduct of members of the European countries, as opposed to that of Asian, African or American ones. In the same manner, depending on the circumstances, two opposing roles are almost always assumed by individuals, communities, and countries alike: the role of the dominator and that of the victim. Even though they might shift in form as times change, not always visible to the naked eye, the aforementioned roles retain their essence and cast their influence on the ones they are attributed to.
Pondering upon the role of literature in relation to the identity of a person, as well as that of a nation and its historical course, one may suggest that it strives to paint into words the image of the inner and outer world of the author, morphed into their characters, at a particular moment in time.
In addition to delivering certain emotions and possibly raising some questions, literature is also meant to subtly outline the effect of what is known to us as history on different persons, based on their life experiences, and to bring the readers closer through mutual understanding. E. D. Blodgett even suggests that” (literary history) seeks either to construct or rewrite the sense of a nation.”
Focusing on Canadian literature, the aim of the present paper is to take into consideration Margaret Atwood’s argument in her Thematic Guide, Survival, and to analyse and argue on the idea that the ‘Canadianness’ of literature, the very essence of this literature is, in fact, the acceptance and assumption of the victim role; asserting one’s truth, beginning and carrying out the process of self-discovery and healing, as well as drawing attention to the state of things and to the possible threats awaiting, these are some of the proceedings accomplished through this particular process, illustrated in the works of some of the most important contemporary Canadian writers.
In her book, Survival, Atwood starts from the suggestive idea that “every country or culture has a single unifying and informing symbol at its core”, giving as examples the Frontier in the case of America, and the Island in the case of England. This idea is particularly relevant given Frederick J. Turner’s text, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, arguing no only on the relevance of the Frontier as a symbol, but on it being the core of the American spirit and values, going as far as to state that “The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics.”
With this symbol extending to aspects of everyday life, it is also reflected in literature, given some of the most important American literary works, themes, and motifs, the same case being easily applied to the symbol of England, its history and its literature. Thus, Atwood’s argument becomes a solid and plausible one.
After introducing the symbol of Canada as Survival, Atwood follows by mentioning the two types of survival Canadians were faced with in the course of history, namely “bare survival” and the “cultural survival”. The second one, in reference to the cultural aspect, introduces one of the most important topics treated in Canadian literature, stemming from the historical existence of the Aboriginals as the first people to inherit the Canadian land.
Also the first to experience the role of the victim in relation with the foreigners who arrived later but still claimed the land, it is important to understand that the art of storytelling has always played a significant part in the Native communities, representing the way in which their history was preserved and the lore was passed on to following generations. On the other hand, outside of their group, history seems to have silenced these communities, given the historical events where, most often, they played the role of the oppressed.
However, Aboriginal Canadians, through accepting and assuming their role as victims of history, have turned to literature in order to rediscover and preserve their identity, while also presenting the world with their own account of history. One such writer is Thomas King. Two of his short stories, One Good Story, That One along with A Coyote Columbus Story, each have their own distinct purpose, both constructed around the symbol of survival, although not directly. The oral component of both stories is a powerful one since the advantage of the setting and the narration is attributed to a Native, comprising elements unknown to the reader of ‘common’ origin.
Thus, in the first story, the victim’s role is assumed in a way that breaks stereotypes and reverses perspectives. When the narrator is visited by the three men, in a characteristic style and approach, he does not deliver what he is expected to, namely a rather stereotypical story, difficult to understand by the uninitiated reader, about the Native traditions and beliefs; on the contrary, he uses the opportunity to ‘mock’ the religious beliefs of the three Whitemen, telling a story about “Ah-damn and Evening”.
Foreign elements are included in an indirect manner, and the coyote tracks mentioned at the end represent one of them. Since the coyote is known to represent the trickster, it offers the key to understanding the text and its purpose. Even though in the actual history, the Natives were the victims of the Whitemen, even though in the story, the narrator is also surrounded and expected to provide a satisfying and exotic tale, through words he manages to become a “creative non-victim”, the fourth stage of the victim in the process of survival described by Margaret Atwood. The narrator is no longer merely a victim, but the designer of an alternate version of historical events.
The style of narration remains rather puzzling, characteristic to the storytelling of Native people, the writer passing on the cultural legacy of the Natives, seconded by the use of simple English. Alongside the style of writing, satire is a means used by Thomas King in these short stories in order to convey meaning and deliver a message. In the second text, on the other way, the coyote is no longer the bearer of a possible interpretation, but a character in a story that has a seemingly childish approach.
The story speaks of the subjectivity of history as presented from a single perspective, bringing to mind W. Churchill’s words “History is written by the victors”. Despite the playful account of actual historical events in a manner that includes Coyote, the symbolic survival and the assumed role of the victim suggested in the text call attention to the actual state of historical events, through a simple idea the narrator shares as an answer to a puzzled Coyote’s question: “But if Christopher Columbus didn’t find America and he didn’t find Indians, who found these things? Those things were never lost, I says. Those things were always here.”
The position of the victim as assumed by the Aboriginals in Canadian Literature is explored and brought to the public’s attention more and more nowadays than before, but the Canadian symbol of survival suggested by Atwood is certainly not restricted to this particular topic. Given the tumultuous historical development of Canada as the country we know today, the role of the victim was not and, to this day, it is not solely attributed to minorities.
The confusion surrounding the identity of Canadians as a nation and the oppression the Canadian people had to face from different directions throughout time made of the process of perpetual survival what the frontier represents for the Americans nowadays. The relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed is present and explored even in some of the most popular works of contemporary Canadian literature, which many would agree to be Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the short stories of Nobel laureate, Alice Munro (also, another important piece of Canadian literature worth mentioning is Yann Martel’s Life of Pi).
Alice Munro’s Royal Beatings draws its symbolic act of survival from the autobiographical elements of the authoress’ life. Focusing on the relationships between Rose, the main character, her stepmother Flo, the other important figure in the text, her father and other participants to the story, the process of writing works in this case as a means of understanding and accepting past events which are reduced to a smaller scale, not affecting a group of people, but a single individual.
The historical role of the victim throughout the decades is mirrored by a simple act of domestic violence, embedded firmly in the structure of a complex narrative. In the case of this short story, the role of the victim is not only attributed to Rose, but to almost each character present; Flo, the victim of her choice of marrying Rose’s father and “sacrificing” herself, the victim of her own ignorance, Becky and Robert Tyde, the victims of an abusive father, Rose herself, the victim of violence and lack of proper communication.
A line from the text describing Rose’s perspective could carry a relevant interpretation to the role of the victim and their survival: “Present people could not be fitted into the past.” In order to survive, as illustrated in the text, one must accept and assume their role, they must evolve, adapt and live under the given circumstances. The scene with Rose’s royal beating and its aftermath illustrates the process of denial, acceptance, and blame, assumption and, finally, the creative escape.
While Royal Beatings explores an intimate part of the act of survival in the past in relation to the present, The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian novel turned into a popular TV series addresses, though its nature, the victim’s survival in a future, possible world. Not only this, but it also highlights the place of women in nowadays’ society and the possible threats posed by the dominance of men. In the case of Offred and the other handmaids, the role of the victim is a brutal one, materialised through their objectifying. They no longer have a name (being called by their “owner”’s name), they all have to wear the same clothes, they do no longer decide upon the sexual acts they engage in, or the pregnancy they have to complete.
Covering aspects of several types of dominance, from physical to psychical and extending to the type involving feelings such as love, Atwood’s novel is the perfect example proving her theory of the essence of Canadian literature. The archetype of the victim placed in the future, Offred struggles to save what is left of her identity through her reflections, transmitting Atwood’s own idea of the process and importance of writing: “Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for, when they scrawl their names in the snow.”
Aesthetically representative to the reachable depths and invisible manifestations of the influence of the oppressor, the verse sung by Flo in Royal Beatings and cited at the beginning of the paper capture one of the instances of the oppressor: slowly approaching its victim, mercilessly asserting the truth regardless of the victim’s desires, and moving on, the victim left to suffer and perish. But in the same way Barbara Allen comes to regret her actions and disappear, too, in the same way, the two roles can be reversed, should the victim accept the situation and have it work in their favour. But past events cannot be altered unless it is through writing.
Therefore, it is the role of writers to capture reality and ponder upon its lessons, and the essence of Canadian literature lies in its tendency to capture these trials and learn from them, while at the same time leaving a statement behind. To the question “Where is here?” still asked by Canadian writers who are yet to discover their whereabouts, the natural response of the victim is to observe, to learn, and then… to survive.
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