Margaret Atwood’s The Age Of Lead, and its merger of two ostensibly different narratives
Margaret Atwood’s “The Age Of Lead” takes two seemingly unrelated narrative threads and weaves them together into a profound, ironic commentary on the human species’ enduring habit of creating products or services that will ultimately kill their makers. The first thread concerns itself with:
the most famous attempt to find The Northwest Passage, the legendary Franklin expedition of 1845… After John Franklin and his crew disappeared, along with his two ships, the Terror and the Erebus, a search, begun in 1847, found a series of tantalizing clues- first, a few graves… but they did not discover the final fate of the expedition until 1859… Franklin died in June 1848, not long after his supplies ran out and his next in command, Capt. Francis Crozier, led the starving crew off the ships to attempt an overland trek back to civilization. They made it as far as Victory Point (where they left a brief record of events) but perished shortly after pushing on from there. Neither the remains of the ships themselves nor the grave of Franklin has ever been found… In the 1980s, a group of anthropologists found the bodies of three of Franklin’s sailors buried in the frozen tundra. (Bennett 50-51)
The second thread deals with the relationship between the story’s protagonist, Jane, and her best friend from her adolescence in the 1960s, Vincent, who remained close to her until he died, as Atwood writes, “less than a year…” before the present day from which the story occurs, written in 1991 (804). The first similarity, a simplistic one, between these stories a century and a half apart historically is the fact that Jane, when the author begins, is watching a TV program chronicling anthropology’s discovery of a man buried “in the frozen gravel, deep into the permafrost” (796). The reader eventually discovers this man is named John Torrington, and he took part in the hubristic search for, as Atwood states disappointedly, “an open seaway across the top of the Arctic, to get to India from England without going all the way around South America. They wanted to go that way because it would cost less and increase their profits. This was much less exotic than Marco Polo” (798). However, likenesses that bind these narratives in a more provocative manner include the causes of death of both Mr. Torrington and Vincent notwithstanding the many advances in preventive health technology, as well as the ominous tone of the present Jane lives in, recapping in a different manner the dread John must have felt in an unforgiving, frigid, lifeless climate before he succumbed. Moreover, the consternation Jane feels echoes a grander social fear appearing in the eighties, when as the author states, “things started to slide” in comparison to the sixties and seventies, which Atwood recaps, in terms of Jane and Vincent’s relationship, with an undeniably nostalgic tone.
Professors Donna Bennett and Russell Brown write of Margaret Atwood in their preface to the story:
In “The Age of Lead…” she presents a complex ecological fable through elaborate counterpoint between the narrator’s developing understanding of the past, which comes to her in the form of a television show about the fate of the last Franklin Expedition…, and her own social relationships. (778)
In this way, through her use of an omniscient narrator, the author reveals to Jane as well as the reader Vincent’s cause of death before that of John Torrington despite the latter’s historical antecedence, in order to have Jane, and so the reader, see Torrington’s process of dying in comparison to that of Vincent. Atwood illustrates a contrast and encourages the reader to find affinity between the two in this passage:
Down in the hold, surrounded by the creaking of the wooden hull and the stale odours of men far too long enclosed, John Torrington lies dying. He must have known it; you can see it on his face. He turns towards Jane his tea-coloured look of puzzled reproach. Who held his hand, who read to him, who brought him water? Who, if anyone, loved him? And what did they tell him about whatever it was that was killing him? Consumption, brain fever, Original Sin. All those Victorian reasons, which meant nothing and were the wrong ones. But they must have been comforting. If you are dying, you want to know why. (803)
Hence, especially in the last sentence of that paragraph, the author builds suspense over not only the reason for fatality of both Torrington and Vincent, but over whether either of them received the consolation of both having a trusted one beside during final moments but knowing the source of their own pain as well. Even though the question of Vincent having someone to help him cope with this tragic time begs an obvious answer, it is to Atwood’s credit that her chronicles of the character’s deaths, although inevitable in what explicitly led to them, are nonetheless heart-wrenchingly powerful.
The author’s constant juxtaposition of the two tales appropriately deepens in meaning and impact when death enters the picture, and the desperation in Jane’s life is foreshadowed and made palpable by Atwood, after she states the eighties saw a decline, as she writes, “People were dying. They were dying too early” (803). Thus the stage is set for Vincent and John’s exit, and the author makes their connection in Jane’s eyes clear right away, “He was not put into the permafrost or frozen in ice… he got flower bulbs planted on top of him, by Jane and others. Mostly by Jane. Right now John Torrington, recently thawed after a hundred and fifty years, probably looks better than Vincent” (804). The dreariness of that description, especially in its last sentence, stands in stark contrast to the TV program’s studio explication of Torrington’s death: “The scientists are back on the screen. They are excited, …, you could almost call them joyful. They know why John Torrington died; they know, at last, why the Franklin Expedition went so terribly wrong” (805). Intriguingly, the details, though wildly divergent at first, become shocking in their resemblance, an example of one of Atwood’s many delicious gambits.
A week before Vincent’s forty-third birthday, Jane went to see him in the hospital. He was in for tests. Like fun he was. He was in for the unspeakable, the unknown. He was in for a mutated virus that didn’t even have a name yet. It was creeping up his spine, and when it reached his brain it would kill him. It was not, as they said, responding to treatment. He was in for the duration. It was white in his room, wintry. He lay packed in ice, for the pain… Jane took one look at him, laid out on ice like a salmon, and began to cry… ‘But what is it?’ she said. ‘Have they found out yet?’ … ‘Who knows?’ he said. ‘It must have been something I ate.’ (804)
Of all the cruelly ironic similitude in that passage to the details of Torrington’s final scene, of the undiagnosed “virus,” which may not even be one at all, as shown by Atwood’s sarcasm, of the body freezing like an Arctic explorer, the final statement is the most potent one of all, for it confirms Jane’s growing paranoia. Jane doesn’t take long to describe what her cold tears help her realize: “Their mothers had finally caught up to them and been proven right. There were consequences after all; but they were the consequences to things you didn’t even know you’d done” (805).
As the TV scientists merely confirm what the reader saw coming in analyzing John Torrington’s death, the author doesn’t spare us more eerily congruent details:
The Franklin Expedition was excellently provisioned with tin cans, stuffed full of meat and soup and soldered together with lead. The whole expedition got lead-poisoning. Nobody knew it. Nobody could taste it. It invaded their bones, their lungs, their brains, weakening them and confusing their thinking… When they were found ten years later, they were skeletons in tattered coats, lying where they’d collapsed… It was what they’d been eating that had killed them. (805)
Finally, Jane’s grief comes as her personal realization of the reason for the escalating social fears that started to assert themselves in the eighties as the narrator stated: the discoveries of mankind are becoming dangerous to their human “masters,” if the homocentric view of the universe is to be believed. Atwood, though subtle in her view, writes of all of the “early” deaths she describes as possibly mandated by a somewhat higher power:
It was as if they had been weakened by some mysterious agent, a thing like a colourless gas, scentless and invisible, so that any germ that happened along could invade their bodies, take them over. Jane began to notice news items of the kind she’d once skimmed over. Maple groves dying of acid rain, hormones in the beef, mercury in the fish,…, God knows what in the drinking water. (804)
Despite the possibility of death’s pre-ordained plan for us, the author still holds humans as primarily responsible for our fates in the evocative final paragraph:
Increasingly the sidewalk that runs past her house is cluttered with plastic drinking cups, crumpled soft-drink cans, used take-out plates. She picks them up, clears them away, but they appear again overnight, like a trail left by an army on the march or by the fleeing residents of a city under bombardment, discarding the objects that were once thought essential but are now too heavy to carry. (805)
In conclusion, Margaret Atwood’s “The Age of Lead” is a perfect example of the analogies that can emerge between two initially divergent narratives. In this instance, stories about, firstly, the anthropological discovery of an Arctic explorer who died over a hundred and fifty years ago, and secondly, a woman growing up in the fifties, sixties and seventies looking back from the present to her relationship with an old friend now deceased, can combine to form a penetrating study of mankind’s puzzling habit of killing itself in its endless search for a better planet and home to live in.
List of Works Cited
Bennett, Donna, and Russell Brown, eds. A New Anthology of Canadian Literature in English. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2002.