Margaret Atwood Commentary
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Margaret Atwood poem The Landlady presents a depressing and frightening experience of one living in a rented room. The landlady is very much the dangerous gaoler of this prison, and one who specializes in oppression. The poem is striking in its use of language, including imagery, sounds, and rhythms, that vividly portray the feared landlady and the shrinking tenant.
The comparison of the speaker living situation to that of a prison, a place of oppression, is the dominant thematic concern. While we might like to think that our home is the place where we can be free and be ourselves, in The Landlady we see how home is turned into a place where a sentence must suffered through. The danger is concentrated in the image of the landlady, the one who is in control. The speaker, who we assume is Atwood when she was a poor university student, never does escape her confinement, either physically or mentally.
The poem is structured into nine stanzas of varying lengths, with the shorter ones coming at the beginning and end. The variety of stanza lengths and the multiple spacings to divide the stanzas support the tension, the feeling of being caught, the danger that can intrude at any time. The short stanzas, and indeed the generally short line lengths, force the reading to slow down which further supports the idea of the speaker being caught in this rooming house prison. The effect is to help immerse us in the speaker ongoing suffering. Except for stanza 6, the speaker approaches her description of the landlady through a variety of senses, beginning with the sounds (raw voice, slams/my days like doors), then with smells (that bulge in under my doorsill), and finally with sight (a bulk, blocking my way). By processing the landlady from the sounds of the lair below the speaker rooms, to the smells sliding under the door, to her actual physical presence, Atwood increases the tension, ending finally with the huge and inevitable landlady solid as bacon.
The oppressive tone, characterized by the speaker fear and loathing, is constant throughout. The speaker never resolves her feelings of being at the mercy of the landlady. The animal references associated with the landlady beginning with lair in the first line and continuing to bacon in the last line emphasize the fact that the landlady is not human, that she is a predator. The speaker says that From her I rent my time, implying that in this jail she is ‚¬Å“doing time to use that well known expression. The speaker cannot escape and when she dreams of daring escapes the dream turns to a nightmare where she is walking over a face which is the land-/lady. The bleak atmosphere is reflected in the speaker inability to deal with the situation. She is the prey and the landlady is the hunter. Despite the disgust that the speaker projects, it is the fear that dominates.
Atwood metaphorical imagery is possibly the strongest aspect of her language in this poem. Images are vivid and informative, giving us a precise understanding of how the landlady is viewed with wary eyes by the speaker. The landlady is associated with beastlike imagery as we can see with Atwood use of lair, henyard/squabble and finally bacon. These animal metaphors present the landlady as both dangerous and intrusive. Other metaphors, such as bulk and a knot swollen in space, add to this idea of the landlady being non-human. Atwood use of synecdoche in she is/a raw voice indicates her beastlike sounds. Atwood choice of unusual phrasing, such as in smells that bulge, crisply links the invasive smells to the landlady who is also a bulge in a sense because of her largeness. When Atwood says solid as bacon we cannot help but imagine a huge slab of landlady in the doorway. This idea of the predator as the jailer fittingly emphasizes the tone of fear and disgust. Even at the end with the mention of bacon, instead of a domesticated pig, maybe we should be thinking about a wild boar.
Slow, strong rhythms and harsh, hard sounds support the oppression found in the poem. The slow prowling rhythms, as in the alliterative first line €œ lair of the landlady – mimics the predatory quality of the landlady. The strong but still slow rhythms that close the poem reinforce the idea of solidity, as when Atwood writes a slab/of what is real/ solid as bacon. Alliteration in the stanza 2 with the bicker of blood through the head and in stanza 5 with she slams/my days like doors mimics the assault that the speaker feels is directed against her. Here too the hard sounds slow the reading down. In prison, time weighs heavily on the inmates. The landlady is described a bulk, a knot, a slab, as solid as bacon, all words that are short and harsh sounding with their hard consonants and low vowels, further underlining the negative qualities of the landlady. Atwood also utilizes the onomatopoeic aspects of words, as in squabble and bicker. It is her precise and unique use of words that help make the poem distinctive.
Atwood has successfully conveyed the terror and disgust at the speaker prison-like situation through precise and rhythmic language uses and the specific structural aspects to develop the tension. She is obviously a talented poet, one who can delve into the emotional depths of an uncomfortable circumstance.