The essay below was written by a second-year student in the English department and was awarded a distinction. While much of the essay’s terminology and many of its ideas are specific to the study of English literature, it is worth looking at this essay to see how it uses the general essay form, even if you find it difficult to understand the content. You can read some comments about the essay in the blue column.

This course focused on the poetry and fiction of the Canadian writer and poet, Margaret Atwood. The writer of this essay was allowed to select her own topic – not advisable, unless you really know what you are doing! For more advice on setting your own essay topic, have a look at the Guide To Writing a Basic Essay web-site.

University of the Witwatersrand

ENGL 206

Discuss the role of seeing and knowing in a selection of Atwood's poems.

In reading Atwood's poetry, I am often left with a sense of her own frustration (or perhaps dissatisfaction is a better word) with the world she views around her. I wondered about the concept of delving below the surface, a concept that obviously fascinates Atwood since she entitled her 1972 novel Surfacing.

I thought too about the mask we present to the world in opposition to our "real" or "inner" selves, brought to life so dazzlingly in her debut novel The Edible Woman. In the book, the lead character Marian constantly represses her true feelings and stifles her scathing observations about her dull fiance Peter and her co-workers at a market research company who represent, for Marian, the grim and limited options available to women in the sixties. ("I don''t consider it feminism; I just consider it social realism.... it is just social reporting. It was written in 1965 and that''s what things were like in 1965." ) In The Edible Woman, Atwood suggests that a fate of boredom, mediocrity and blandness is inevitable for Marian unless she breaks free, and this seems to re-enforce Atwood's interest in mythology - not only myths such as fables and folk-lore, but also myths about modern existence, myths about normality and myths about gender roles. In other words, cultural myths.

Reading her novels and her poetry, it occurred to me that all these themes seem to relate to a central theme in Atwood's work - but most particularly in her poetry, and that is the theme of looking, of seeing, of watching: looking as a form of penetration into a person or situation's deeper levels, looking as a source of frustration and misunderstanding, looking and its links with the notions of visibility and invisibility, looking as a form of control and superiority. With the examination of several of her poems across the years, I will examine how Atwood places enormous emphasis on the eye, and yet constantly highlights the limitations and unreliability of perception. Her relationship with seeing and not seeing is sometimes overt and obvious, sometimes subtle and indirect, but occurs again and again in her work.

Many of Atwood's poems have a real sense of progression about them - her poetry definitely develops a central idea and often tells a story, although this does not mean she shies away from dealing with the cyclic nature of life - indeed, the title alone of her first poetry book, The Circle Game shows how she accepts that progression and development is very often cyclical. Nevertheless, this "progression" often presents us with the scenario where a subject is looking but not truly seeing or understanding what is being looked at, and then looking harder, further, deeper, more intensely and thus having more revealed to the subject about the object. This results in a more complex and rewarding understanding of the person or situation being examined.

Her poem, Against Still Life - a poem very close to my heart - illustrates this well. The poem is (on a very simplistic level) about the frustration of looking at and attempting to appreciate a still-life painting. Atwood is dissatisfied with the gross reductionalism of the two-dimensional painting of an orange because it can never capture the complexities and sensuality of the reality. She then extends this comparison to her lover, or a loved one at least, and describes her need to taste him and experience all of him, to "crack his skull" to get inside and know his real thoughts.

By choosing to name a style of visual art ("Still Life") in the title of her poem, Atwood immediately summons up connotations of looking. The painting's title, implied by the first line "Orange in the middle of a table," summons up the image of a painting which ought to be viewed passively - but Atwood challenges this way of looking at once. She writes:

"It isn't enough/ to walk around it/ at a distance, saying/ it's an orange/ nothing to do/ with us, nothing/ else: leave it alone."

Atwood seeks instinctually to know more about this orange, she wants to see more than is initially presented to her. She does not wish to look only at the exterior and the superficial, but wants to see the hidden depths, to see right through this painting. Similarly, Atwood describes her lover's silences as "orange" - in other words as superficial and impenetrable as the two-dimensional representation of the orange. Refusing to accept this, Atwood wants to see more of him, to "get a look inside" and by gaining this in-sight, to truly get to know him.

This linguistic and ideological link between sight and knowledge is as old as the English language itself, and Atwood uses this connection frequently in her work. Not only are the words "Eye" and "I" phonetically identical in English, but our idioms re-enforce the Western cultural belief that sight equals knowledge: "Seeing is believing"; "There is none so blind as he that will not see"' "Out of sight, out of mind". Even the word "omniscient" means "all-knowing and all-seeing" - two entirely different concepts which are considered completely interchangeable.

Atwood's poetry often plays on the idea that if one looks with care and true determination, new knowledge will be revealed to the looker. In Against Still Life she writes, "If I watch/ quietly enough/ and long enough/at last you will say ... all I need to know." Similarly, in This Is A Photograph Of Me she writes, "It is difficult to say where/ precisely, or to say/ how large or small I am.... but if you look long enough,/ eventually/ you will be able to see me." Looking deeply and patiently can be a form of penetration into a person's soul, or can reveal a new angle on a picture one assumed one understood.

This new way of looking also ties in with Atwood's fascinating notions of visibility and invisibility in her poetry. Her poem The Wereman from The Journals of Susanna Moodie, deals explicitly with sight and seeing and the faith that one places in one's own perception of other people. The title is a play on words: instead of entitling it "The Werewolf" but the "The Wereman" she is drawing on the myth of the man who turns into a wolf at full moon, while still placing emphasis on his human-ness.

She writes about her husband as he goes hunting, "Unheld by my sight/ what does he change into?" This forces one to recall a reaction one observes in very small babies - the belief that if they cannot see you and you are out of their sight, you cease to exist; the philosophical theories of epistemologists come to mind, who posed the question "If a tree falls in a forest and there is no-one there to hear it, does it make a noise?" "Unheld" by her sight, is Susanna's husband the same as when she can see him? Or perhaps she has just created "an idea of him" - a false construction of who and what he really is. Atwood's persona is doubting her interpretation of what her eye tells her she can see, and wonders if "the truth" lies in invisibility - what she can''t see.

Atwood's lines, "he may change me also/ with the fox eye, the owl/ eye, the eightfold/ eye of the spider" force one to start to wonder whether different creatures see the world differently and - by extension of this line of thinking - if their inherent natures (although of course whether there is such a thing as inherent nature is an essay within itself) and their roles in nature affect how they view the world. The owl holds mythological connotations of wisdom and is known to have extremely sharp vision. The fox is representative of cunning, trickery, deviousness and perhaps sees the world accordingly - as his prey to play with. The spider sees the world in a way which we, as humans, find more difficult to relate to - through eight eyes. Atwood''s persona - Susanna - relates all these different perspectives back to her husband, wondering how he sees her, which "eye" in particular is he seeing her through?

In this poem, Atwood is challenging the slightly arrogant belief that what we see and how we see is "normal" and "the truth". By using indirect comparison she is asking us whether the way the owl sees, or the fox sees, or the spider sees is not the "normal" way. The poem, The Wereman is perhaps more about Susanna and Atwood's growing distrust of sight and the process of seeing.

Returning to ideas of visibility and invisibility, the poem Backdrop Addresses Cowboy is, for me, Atwood's most powerful statement about our assumptions about The Natural State Of Things, and about how our collective eye has been conditioned to accept that a certain status quo is Normal. Whether Atwood intended it or not, this poem confronts patriarchal and colonial ideology, forcing the reader to examine and give credit to the background, the backdrop - the marginalised and traditionally "unimportant" surroundings.

She begins the poem by painting the picture of a cowboy for us, and her portrayal is not favourable - words like "sauntering", "tugging", "righteous", "heroic" and "laconic" immediately make us critical and wary of this figure. Her phrase "your righteous eyes," referring to the cowboy, captures precisely how this male figure views the world - it is his for the taking. He is the centre of all, and morally superior to those around him. He is brave, strong, dominant and in control and thus he deserves the world's attention and adoration. Again, it is interesting to note that Atwood ties in ideology to sight: the transferred epithet gives his eyes - his means of sight - a righteous quality. Atwood is linking how we think psychologically with how we view the word physically. Sight is power and sight is knowledge.

After this description of what we assume to be the central figure - the masculine cowboy - she then begins to write about herself, describing herself in terms of vast and broad and unconfinable things - "I am elsewhere"; "I am the horizon"; "I am also what surrounds you" "I am the space you desecrate/ as you pass through." The eye generally accepts these things as nothing more significant or worthy of interest than the surroundings, the frame which contains the object of true interest - but Atwood challenges this way of seeing as before. The backdrop is what makes the cowboy - the background sacrifices its own rightful place for the sake of the cowboy and his moment of glory. She has re-directed our attention back to the spaces, the gaps, the holes and made us rethink whether or not there is significance in that which encloses and surrounds, just as there is poetry in silence and as well as in words.

Atwood also looks at the preconception that woman should be passive observers, thus taking a secondary and nonessential role, while men are the active heros. Emphasising looking once again, Atwood writes, "I ought to be watching/ from behind a cliff or a cardboard storefront/ when the shooting starts, hands clasped/ in admiration". Men should be watched doing admirable and enviable things, while women "ought to be" viewing them. But, as Atwood writes, "I am elsewhere." Here Atwood is rejecting looking as a means of retaining control. If she were to conform and merely watch the almighty cowboy sauntering around this town compliantly, she would be surrendering control and undermining her own worth. She asserts that she does not have to accept the role of passive looker, and she asserts her presence as more than something that must simply be watched and seen as the centre of the action, but rather as something larger and more natural - "the thing you can never lasso."

Margaret Atwood''s poetry explores many themes in the most fascinating and original ways, with imagery that startles and dazzles, touches and pokes but is deeply rewarding because it continuously challenges dominant and accepted beliefs with a most subtle and novel approach. Her constant play with the idea of sight and seeing, watching and being watched makes the reader of her poetry constantly rethink his or her own ways of seeing, and the perceptions and ideologies which underlie that way of seeing.


1) Atwood, M Poems: 1965 - 1975 London: Virago Press 1991

2) Ingersoll, E.G (editor) Margaret Atwood

"Discuss" is quite a general action word, allowing for a broad range of responses to the task. It is really the equivalent of "talk about" – quite general!

The writer of this essay uses the first person "I" in her essay – some departments and markers feel that this is too personal. It is actually better to avoid using "I" if you are uncertain whether or not it is appropriate.

In the first three paragraphs, this student outlines the background to this essay, and supplies a quick overview of what she will discuss in the essay. Note that she does not merely repeat the question ("I will discuss seeing and knowing…"), but actually summarises the argument of the essay ("I will examine how Atwood places enormous emphasis on the eye, and yet constantly highlights its limitations…") This is sometimes referred to as a thesis statement. In this case, it gives the reader a kind of map of the essay. If you explain how the essay will proceed in the introduction, you help your reader not to become lost in your argument. In this case, the thesis statement could have come earlier in the introduction – we have to read quite a bit before we understand what this essay is about.

Look at all the texts referred to in the first few paragraphs – this student is showing that she has read broadly (and in this case, beyond the syllabus). Always a good idea, provided the texts that are referred to are relevant in the context.

Note how in the body of the essay, the writer of this essay explains and substantiates her thesis statement. It is almost as if she is arguing a case in front of a jury – she makes a claim, and then immediately supplies evidence to back it up. This means that her essay is persuasive and specific.















This writer’s own voice comes through very strongly in this essay. She is writing in a fairly formal academic style, but she is not using other people’s words, and her own feelings and opinions are visible when she uses phrases like "Atwood’s fascinating notions of visibility and invisibility". She is using ideas that came up in lectures and tutorials, but she has found ways using them in her own argument, and she is using her own words. It is difficult to get really good mark if you don’t manage to use your distinctive voice in a consistent and coherent way in your writing.

Note how the argument is structured around ideas rather than specific poems or novels. This shows that this writer has planned her essay carefully. She announces the ideas she wants to discuss in her topic sentences, and then draws on a range of texts to illustrate and clarify her statements. This helps her to avoid repetition, and it means that the essay does not read in a disjointed, episodic way. All her ideas advance an argument: she never merely paraphrases the poem or the novel. She refers to a text, it is always to help her develop an argument.






























The conclusion restates the argument, and in a clever twist refers to the reader – her essay now becomes not just about Margaret Atwood, but about reading practices in general. Sometimes it is a good idea to open an idea up in this general way in the conclusion.

The bibliography is rather brief, for a 200-level essay. The second source is incomplete, and one does not number sources in the English Department.