Narrative Voice in Margaret Atwood’s “Wilderness Tips”

[an analysis by Carl Rosen]

In Margaret Atwood’s “Wilderness Tips,” the reader is introduced to six total characters in the story. Five of them are physical characters and one of them is the narrator, who is responsible for perpetuating the story. The narrator operates in a fully omniscient third person point of view. The reader meets these characters at a lake house somewhere in Canada, during a family getaway from the city. Pamela, Prue, and Portia are all sisters with their brother Roland, and Portia’s husband George, which is not his real name, is also in attendance. The story focuses on George’s adulterous marriage with Portia and how she knowingly allows it to continue. George has had an off-and-on affair with Portia’s sister, Prue, throughout his marriage, along with sexual relations with his secretaries and several other women. After Atwood fills in some of the family dynamic information, the story climaxes with the eldest sister, Pamela, having sex with George during this getaway, and Portia catching them, causing her to commit suicide by drowning herself in the lake.

This story evokes several moral themes and includes some really well crafted motifs, but the literary element that stuck out to me most in “Wilderness Tips” was the voice of the narrator. Atwood structures the piece so that each character has their moment in the sun with the reader, so to speak, by delegating the narrator into five omniscient and unbiased sections with each character isolated in the spotlight. The narrative shifts back and forth between character description and current events taking place, and gives an unbiased picture of each character by allowing each one to tell their own tale in a way. The narrator begins with George, who to me is the most interesting of the group, and reasonably so, because of his promiscuity, lack of morals, and adherence to tradition. During the section about George, brief provocative sentences seem to contrast banalities in an abrupt manner, which leaves the reader wanting to know more. An example of this is “He once shot three men, himself, though only two of them were strictly necessary. The third was a precaution” (46). The narrator does a similar job of personalizing each of the other characters’ sections with idiosyncrasies such as this. For example, Roland’s section constantly refers to the grandfather painting on the wall disapproving at him, which is why he is the only child without a “P” for his first initial in the family.

Because the narrator is able to accomplish such feats of characterization through being unbiased, it lets the reader form opinions and analysis based off of current and passed character actions without having to worry about the narrator’s opinion of the characters.

Focused upon at the end of the piece, the fight between Prue and Portia in regard to George’s whereabouts is one of the few times dialogue is used in the piece, and it is ironic in this case considering that he’s unexpectedly with Pamela while the other two sisters argue. The narrator then takes the show away and wraps up Porita’s suicide by describing her in the lake till almost the end.

Thanks to Atwood’s structure of detailing all of her characters in separate, and at times conjoined, sections, the reader has watched the events currently taking place, which are foreshadowed by the in depth narration taking place throughout each character’s section through both character perception and lapses in time. And of course in Portia’s section, the narration focuses on her lack of strength at George’s constant infidelity, and George running off with Pamela was what finally pushed Portia to suicide because her character wasn’t strong enough to break her relationship with him off. Without such consistency and fairness in time spent describing each character, the reader would not have such an impactful experience with the turbulent relations of the people in this story, or with Portia’s symbolic death in the lake.


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