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Athabasca University

Atwood’s Survival : A Critique

by Joseph Pivato



When Margaret Atwood's Survival was first published in 1972 it was received as an interesting  reading of Canadian literature suitable for a decade preoccupied with environmental themes in Canadian culture. However it quickly became dated and subsequent reprintings of this "thematic guide to Canadian literature" contributed to distortions of  Canada's literary heritage.  In this paper I will critically examine the many problems with Survival,  its role in influencing the canon of Canadian literature, and its failure to deal with  regional identities and the cultural differences in multiculturalism.

Let us look briefly at the question, 'What is Canadian literature?'  Put simply, it is the literature produced by people resident in Canada who write about society, history, culture, physical environments, human behaviour and other issues from the vantage point of  Canada. The first Europeans to settle in the territory of Canada were the French and the English and these are the two languages used in Canadian literature. Subsequently we have recognized the contributions of the First Nations who were already living in the land of Canada. With the arrival of other European groups and people from many other countries around the world Canada has developed into a diverse population. We can now say that the people of British origin and French origin constitute the two ethnic majority groups and the people with origins in other countries constitute the  many ethnic minority groups; groups which are sometimes identified with a hyphen: Filipino-Canadian, Ukrainian-Canadian, Polish-Canadian, Greek-Canadian, Italian-Canadian and so forth. We must also recognize that while some people are proud of being identified with their ethnic cultural heritage, others reject the use of the hyphen and the association with ethnicity. In 1971 when PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau introduced  the concept of Multiculturalism he was officially recognizing the growing diversity of the population of Canada. Many people were already in agreement at that point that it was time to move beyond the binary model of the English and the French founding communities.

Diversity in Canadian Writing

The majority of books produced in Canada are in the English language, followed by books in French. Already in the 1970s,  many  writers working in English or in French were from other ethnic backgrounds. While they used one of the official languages they were nevertheless exploring their own cultural differences and their dual identities as both Canadian and other.  Some immigrant writers continued to write in their native languages over many years, but often about life in Canada. They were  Canadian writers working in non-official languages. Two examples  are the Toronto authors Josef Skvorecky who wrote in Czech, and Maria Ardizzi who wrote in Italian.

In the 1970s literary scholars were slow to recognize the growing diversity in Canadian writing. They were instead preoccupied with establishing a recognizable Canadian literature distinct from that of Britain and the USA. Atwood's Survival was a handy sketch for organizing some themes in Canadian writing for a short time. It had lots of company among the books on environmental themes: D.G. Jones' Butterfly on Rock (1970), Northrop Frye's The Bush Garden (1971), Laurence Ricou's Vertical Man/ Horizontal World (1973), John Moss' Patterns of Isolation in English Canadian Fiction (1974), Dick Harrison's Unnamed Country (1977) and Philip Stratford's comparative essay "Canada's Two Literatures: A Search for Emblems," (1979). Nevertheless, Survival went on to have an inordinate influence on the Canadian canon, more than all the above listed books put together. Was this due to the clever marketing of this handy guide by its Toronto publisher, House of Anansi, or to the simplistic schematics of the four victim positions, or to Atwood's growing reputation among feminists, or to all three of these factors? Whatever the reasons  hundreds of thousands of copies of Survival  have been sold in several reprints.

There have been many critics of  Survival, both the book and the thesis of victim postures. One of the first was a pioneer researcher in Canadian literature, Robin Mathews with, "Survival and Struggle in Canadian Literature" (1972). He was followed by writer and editor Frank Davey, "Atwood Walking Backwards" (1973), and "Surviving the Paraphrase” (1976), then George Woodcock,  "Horizon of Survival" (1973) and others. In his 1978 book, Canadian Literature: Surrender or Revolution, Mathews repeats his condemnation of Survival, "It remains - having survived several printings with no significant changes - a fundamentally misguided view of Canadian Literature." (119)  Despite the many criticisms levelled at Survival and the whole enterprise of thematic categorization of Canadian novels and poems, subsequent reprintings and mass distribution of this book gave it the authority of scripture. I agree with the above criticisms of Survival and the reason that I am returning to critique it again here is that Anansi Press  continues to reprint it and use the Atwood celebrity status to promote the book.

Central  Symbol ?

One of the shortcomings of Survival is Atwood's claim that "The central symbol of Canada-- and this is based on numerous instances of its occurrence in both English and French Canadian literature--is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance." (32)  Atwood's argument that this theme is what distinguishes Canadian writing from that of the U.K. and the U.S.A. does not stand up to scrutiny.  In my 1985 book, Contrasts, I pointed out that the survival-frontier theme is not original, nor particularly Canadian. The American historian Frederick Jackson Turner published, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" in 1920 and again in 1948. (1985, 23-25)  See also the 1970 book by Michael Cross on the long history of this thesis.

In the above quotation from Survival there is the claim that this theme recurs in French Canadian literature. However in the ten chapters where Atwood explores the various victim positions there are often no examples from Quebec’s French authors. Only in chapter eleven, "Quebec: Burning Mansions" do we get some examples from French novels and short stories, but limited to a few works in English translation. The interpretations are often short and superficial. It becomes apparent that she does not understand what  la survivance means in French Quebec; the survival of the French language and culture in North America, a feat against all odds in the history of conquest.  In Atwood's reading of Quebec literature we get a negative and pessimistic view of French culture.

The bibliography of  French Canadian books listed at the end of the  Quebec chapter is quite modest and a couple of titles are repeated again in some chapters of Survival. What is Graeme Gibson's English novel doing on a list of French books? He and a number of authors from House of Anansi Press  seem to reappear in all the reading lists regardless of the particular theme or argument in the chapter.  Are personal relationships influencing the selection of these titles?

One of the main objectives of Survival was to identify and promote a distinct national Canadian Literature. The perspective is an English Canadian one that is quite centered on the greater Toronto area. I have already pointed out the few references there are to French authors from Quebec. The other area that is neglected in Survival  is the literature of western Canada. On three reading lists there are novels by Frederick Philip Grove and Margaret Laurence, but few other western authors are mentioned. In 1969 Robert Kroetsch won the Governor General's Award for his Edmonton novel, The Studhorse Man. In  addition to the exclusion of Kroetsch there is no mention of Edmonton novelist Rudy Wiebe. Atwood (as Peggy Polk) was teaching at the University of Alberta in 1968-70 and should have been aware of these writers. At that time Wiebe and Dick Harrison were teaching the first courses in Canadian literature at the University of Alberta with a focus on writers of the Canadian west.

As  "a thematic guide to Canadian literature" this book gives us a narrow, static and negative  view of Canadian writing at a time when it is changing very rapidly. The Multiculturalism policy had been declared in 1971 because Canadian society and culture where evolving in pluralistic ways. The evidence was there in 1972 for anyone working in Canadian literature to see: In 1970 the Governor General's Award for Fiction went to Dave Godfrey for The New Ancestors, a novel that deals with the African ancestry of a number of Canadian characters. The following year Mordecai Richler won for St. Urbain's Horseman, a novel that deals with the ethnic identity of Jewish characters against the background of World War II atrocities. Edmonton novelist, Henry Kreisel also dealt with these topics in The Rich Man (1948) and The Betrayal (1964).

Where Is Multicultural Writing ?

There is no discussion of multiculturalism or of the search for the meaning of dual identity in Survival. Rather there is a short chapter on "Failed Sacrifices: The Reluctant Immigrant" which focuses on four books, Austin Clarke`s When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks (1971), a collection of short stories,   Adele Wiseman 's Winnipeg novel, The Sacrifice (1956) , John Marlyn's immigrant novel Under the Ribs of Death (1957) and Brian Moore's The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960). In order to fit them into  the victim thesis these different works are all read as portrayals of losers. This is a negative reading that distorts these narratives and misguides readers.  First of all, there is more to these narratives than sacrifice and failure. Secondly, other ethnic Canadian writers were already emerging at this time whom Atwood did not consider. In other words  it could be said that  she had her survival thesis and selectively mined the literature for evidence to support it.

What writers such as Kreisel, Wiseman and Marlyn demonstrate are artists who were exploring ethnic identity in Canada long before the Federal Government in Ottawa promoted a policy on Multiculturalism with a capital 'M'. Ethnic communities in Canada were practicing small 'm' multiculturalism, are continuing to do so and will go on doing so regardless of the changing policies in Ottawa and provincial capitals. Let us consider the role that the Federal Government's policy on Multiculturalism played in development of  Canadian literature.

From the 1970s into the 1990s the Multiculturalism Directorate in Ottawa funded many publications by ethnic minority writers and community groups. Small presses such as Guernica Editions in Montreal,  Mosaic Press and TSAR Publications in Toronto received direct funding to print books by ethnic minority writers. These included anthologies of ethnic minority authors such as The Geography of Voice: Canadian Literature of the South Asian Diaspora (1992), and Quêtes: Textes d'auteurs italo-québécois (1983).This funding helped ethnic minority writers to get published sooner and possibly to publish more works.  However the Multiculturalism Directorate changed their funding policy in the late 1990s and they no longer funded the publication of creative works. The Directorate began to focus on fighting racism.  But that change in policy  has not stopped ethnic writers from getting their works published. They are still able to find small presses willing to print and promote their writing. Heritage language authors try to get their work printed in the old country or simply self-publish as they often did in the 1950s and 1960s.I should point out that some ethnic minority writers in Quebec worked in French.  Examples  are the authors of Arabic origin discussed in Elizabeth Dahab's book, Voices of Exile in Contemporary Canadian Francophone Literature (2009), and the Italian-Quebecois writers in the Quêtes anthology listed above.

The generation of writers from the 1970s and 1980s have a generally positive view of government policies of Multiculturalism. They grew up under the strong assimilationist pressures of the 1950s and '60s.  Rather than feeling excluded  Multiculturalism helped them to publish more quickly and to contribute to the growth of Canadian literature which was becoming more and more ethnically diverse. This attitude changed with some writers from later generations who were wary of any kind of label such as:  ethnic, diasporic, minority, ethno-cultural, multicultural, and other.  They would reject much of what I have written above as  misleading, self-congratulatory multicultural rhetoric. Under the influence of post-colonial theories' current obsession with self-reflexive self-doubt about any kind of literary analysis of subaltern texts by any western academics they would dismiss such work as neo-colonial. And would attack the work of critics such as  me as complicit with official Multiculturalism's sedative politics.

But as much as some critics might like to deny the value of recognizing cultural differences in Canadian writing, it continues to grow. If we list just some of the  novels in the 1990s that won the Governor General's Award for English Fiction we are made aware of different ethnicities: Nino Ricci's Lives of the Saints (1990),  Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey (1991),  Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (1992),  and Rudy Wiebe's Discovery of Strangers (1994).   M.G. Vassanji won the first Giller Prize for his African novel, The Book of Secrets (1994), and Rohinton Mistry won the second Giller Prize for his South Asian novel,  A Fine Balance (1995). One of my favourite authors, F.G. Paci has published more than 11 novels about the problems of ethnic identity in Canada. His Black Madonna (1982)  is a masterpiece. None of the novels listed in this paragraph fit into Atwood’s survival schematic.

Given that Atwood’s survival thesis is based on an environmental reading of Canadian writing one might expect that she would give some attention to the writing of Indigenous authors. In chapter 4, “Early People: Indians and Eskimos as Symbols” Atwood’s focus is on the depictions of Indigenous people by white writers. In accord with her thesis she portrays a negative view the Indigenous person as victim, but a victim who does not speak for himself or herself. In an appendix at the end of this chapter there are five titles of “writing by Indians,” a mere token jesture. There is no discussion or even mention of literary works by First Nations writers such as the Mohawk poet, Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), Cree author, Edward Ahenakew (1885-1961), Ojibway writer, Basil Johnston, or Metis writer, Maria Campbell. Despite Atwood’s childhood summers spent in the northern woods she does not acknowledge the existence of Indigenous culture in any substantial way.

Atwood entitles chapter 5 “Ancestral Totems: Explorers, Settlers.” Despite the suggestive title there are no Indigenous ancestors or totems in this chapter. The cavalier use of Indigenous terms in the title is just appropriation of First Nations culture for no other reason than to pretend to acknowledge the existence of an Indigenous presence in Canada. What we get from this chapter is the image of Canadian territory as an empty land with lakes yet to be named. I must also point out that Atwood devotes chapter 3 to animal stories, a trend in Canadian writing, but does not deal with any writing by Indigenous people here either. She is perpetuating a colonial bias in this “guide to Canadian Literature.”

Surviving A New Edition

When Survival was reprinted in a new edition in 2004 and again in 2012 Atwood added an introduction in two parts: “Survival: A Demi-Memoir,” ten pages of nostalgia about the 1950s and 1960s in Toronto, and then “Introduction,” seven pages about the founding of the House on Anansi Press by a number of Toronto writers. In this new introduction she had a good opportunity to directly address some of the shortcomings of the 1972 edition. In a few pages she could have mentioned some of the new developments such as the growth of Indigenous literature, the growth of ethnic diversity in Canadian writing and mention a few of the authors and titles listed above. Instead she devotes paragraphs to belittling the critics of the Survival text. She claims to be “a mere chit of a girl,” naïve about the ways of literary scholarship. But she also reminds us that she taught English and Canadian Literature at York University in 1971-72. It is an admission that Canadian Literature was being taught at some Canadian universities long before Survival. In fact, Clara Thomas introduced the first Canadian Literature course in 1967 at York with the support of Eli Mandel. Thomas published Our Nature, Our Voices: A Guide to English-Canadian Literature by 1972. By the 1990s Margaret Atwood had been an invited speaker at many campuses across Canada, the US and Europe and so would have a good idea of the expectations for clarity, consistency and evidence-based academic communication.

As an aside I note that when Atwood published her dystopian novel, The Testaments in 2019 we were informed that six editors worked on the text. And that years of research were devoted to it and to the The Handmaids’s Tale (1985). This is in contrast to Survival which had little editorial oversight, even after 40 years of reprints.

Her self-deprecation with regard to literary criticism is false and misleading; by 2004 she had published six books of critical prose and essays. And in her novels she writes with authority on a number of subjects; so she knows how to do research.  However this level of professionalism is missing from the first edition of Survival and from the new introduction to the 2004 edition. Instead we are given the impression that at one level Atwood never took this book project seriously; it was meant to be a quick job to help fund the floundering  Anansi press in 1971. However,  after many reprintings  and hundreds of thousands of copies sold by 2012 it is time to address the shortcomings of  this book that has her name on the cover.

On the dust jacket of the 1972 edition we read,

 "Survival is the most startling book ever written about Canadian literature. It 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 twofold: survival and victims. Atwood applies this thesis to twelve brilliant and impassioned chapters."

These self-promoting claims were not true in 1972 and they are certainly not  true now. And yet we read this blurb in every online site for Survival or Atwood. It seems that the publishers of this out-of-date book just want to sell copies, rather than honestly  serve the students who naively turn to Survival for some sound insights into Canadian Literature.  Anansi reprinted Survival in 2004 and again in 2012 as if all the changes in Canadian writing that I mention above had not happened; as if the authors and books listed above did not exist. The term "manifesto" suggests a program for future development, instead we have a collection of old clichés and stereotypes from the past. As Frank Davey pointed out, "Atwood Walking Backwards."

Collateral Damage from Survival

Let us consider the effects of Atwood`s Survival on the development of Canadian literature as it is taught in colleges and universities across Canada and in other countries.
First, it makes both students and teachers lazy. They can quickly turn to Survival, as a kind of ‘Coles Notes’ on Canadian literature.  It tells them what to read, how to read it and how to organize their courses. Atwood’s guide does not encourage critical analysis of either the content or style of the works it promotes as emblematic of Canadian writing.
Second, it identifies a narrow selection of titles as representative of Canadian writing. Already in 1972 the titles that Atwood used to support her survival arguments were rather limited. And she repeats many titles in several chapters as if these few books were omniscient.  Though clearly out-of-date  Atwood and her publisher continued to promoted it as THE guide to Canadian literature. And they continue to reprint the body of the 1972 text unchanged.
Third,  new readers to Canadian writing who may use the Survival text are misguided by the distortions it perpetuates, even into the new century. I have listed some of these problems above.
Experienced teachers of English literature complain about the pernicious influences of this so-called guide on the reading and writing of their students.
Fourth,  Survival is particularly damaging to people outside Canada who are reading and studying  literature and are given the book’s limited views.  Many have few alternative Canadian resources in order to learn about other developments in Canadian writing.
Fifth, it provides bad examples and bad readings for young people who aspire to become writers.
Sixth, the Atwood name is used to give this bad text the imprimatur, the guarantee that it is a good standard of scholarship as a guide to Canadian Literature. Shame on the author and her Toronto publisher.
Seventh, the Survival text reflects badly on  other studies of Canadian literature. We all become guilty of poor scholarship by association.
Some of my university colleagues could add other complaints about Survival and will continue to do so.  I will stop at only seven.


I have taught Canadian literature with great joy for about 35 years. One of my small achievements has been to guide my many students away from the Survival text. My reward for this was the surprise and joy of students who discovered all the other wonderful novels, short stories, plays and poems by Canadian writers of diverse ethnic backgrounds. It confirms our suspicion that we never needed the Survival text in the first place.

Works Cited

Ahenakew, Edward. Voices of the Plains Cree. Toronto:  McClelland & Stewart, 1973.

Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1972,  the 2004 and the 2012 editions.

Caccia, Fulvio & A. D’Alfonso. Eds. Quetes: Textes d’auteurs italo-quebecois. Montreal: Guernica editions, 1983.

Campbell, Maria. Halfbreed. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973.

Clarke, Austin. When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks. Toronto: Anansi, 1971.

Cross, Michael S. ed. The Frontier Thesis and the Canadas: The Debate on the Impact of the Canadian Environment. Toronto: Copp Clark Publishing, 1970.

Dahab,F. Elizabeth. Voices of Exile in Contemporary Francophone Literature. Lantham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2009.

Davey, Frank. “Atwood Walking Backwards.” Open Letter II, 5 (Summer 1973): 74-84.

_____. “Surviving the Paraphrase: Thematic Criticism and its Alternatives.” Canadian Literature 70 (1976): 5-13.

Frye, N.  The Bush Garden. Toronto: Anansi Press, 1971

Godfrey, Dave. The New Ancestors. Toronto: New Press, 1970.

Johnston, Basil. Moose Meat & Wild Rice. Toronto:  McClelland & Stewart, 1987.

Jones, D.G. Butterfly on Rock. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970.

Marlyn, John. Under the Ribs of Death. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1957.

Mathews, Robin. "Survival and the Struggle in Canadian Literature." This Magazine Is About Schools, VI,4 (1972-73): 109-24.

_____. Canadian Literature: Surrender or Revolution. Toronto: Steel Rail Educational Publishing,  1978.

McGifford, Diane. ed. The Geography of Voice: Canadian Literature of the South Asian Diaspora. Toronto: TSAR, 1992.

Paci, F.G.  Black Madonna. Ottawa: Oberon, 1982.

Pivato, Joseph. Contrasts: Comparative Essays on Italian-Canadian Writing. Montreal: Guernica, 1985.

Ricci, Nino. Lives of the Saints.  Dunvegan: Cormorant Press, 1990.

Richler, Mordecai.  St. Urbain’s Horseman.  Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1971.

Thomas, Clara. Our Nature, Our Voices: A Guidebook to English-Canadian Literature. Toronto: New Press, 1972

Vassanji, M.G. The Book of Secrets. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1994.

Wiseman, Adele. The Sacrifice.  Toronto: Macmillan, 1956.

Woodcock, George. “Horizons of  Survival” Canadian Literature 55 (1973): 3-6.

Updated October 06 2020 by Student & Academic Services

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