An Analysis of Margaret Atwood’s “The Age of Lead”
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In Margaret Atwood’s short story “The Age of Lead,” the author alternates between two foci: a television program about the discovery and excavation of a body which has been buried in ice for a century and a half, and the protagonist’s recollection of the recent death of her friend Vincent, who has been the single most significant person in her life.
The protagonist, Jane, is understandably a little touchy about the topic of death right now, yet she finds the program too compelling to turn off. The frozen body is identified as that of an Arctic explorer, John Torrington, and because he has frozen solid from the day of his death, he is remarkably well-preserved. “The freezing water has pushed his lips away from his teeth into an astonished snarl, and he’s a beige colour, like a gravy stain on linen, instead of pink, but everything is still there. He even has eyeballs, except that they aren’t white but the light brown of milky tea. With these tea-stained eyes he regards Jane: an indecipherable gaze, innocent, ferocious, amazed, but contemplative ….”
What follows is a contemplation on mortality and the inevitability of change. Through Jane’s memories, Atwood reconstructs Jane’s life with Vincent, her childhood friend and not-quite lover. Although Jane herself professes not to know, we receive many intimations that Vincent is gay: for example, she notes—twice—that Vincent “was adored. He wasn’t adored the way other boys were adored, those boys with surly lower lips and greased hair and a studied air of smouldering menace. He was adored like a pet. Not a dog, but a cat. He went where he liked, and nobody owned him. Nobody called him Vince.”
Atwood adds that even Jane’s mother, who was dourly convinced that Jane would eventually fall in love with the wrong boy and wind up pregnant as she had, approved of Vincent: “Maybe she approved of him because it was obvious to her that no bad results would follow from Jane’s going out with him: no heartaches, no heaviness, nothing burdensome. None of what she called consequences. Consequences: the weightiness of the body, the growing flesh hauled around like a bundle, the tiny frill-framed goblin head in the carriage.”
And no “consequences” did result. Jane and Vincent grew up, moved to different cities, and got back together in that ‘settling’ period between youth and middle-age, but their lives did not seem to settle themselves in the way Jane—or her mother—might have expected. They did not get married, either to each other or anyone else. Yet they remained as close as ever. They shared a social circle primarily made up of artists and people in artistic professions—designers, photographers, theatrical producers, entertainment lawyers.
In the 1970s, it was fun. But by the mid-1980s, a subtle change had come over their lives, summed up by Atwood’s observation that “the air was full of windblown grit.” And an unsettling thing had begun to happen: “People were dying. They were dying too early. One of Jane’s clients, a man who owned an antique store, died almost overnight of bone cancer. Another, a woman who was an entertainment lawyer, was trying on a dress in a boutique and had a heart attack. She fell over and they called the ambulance, and she was dead on arrival. A theatrical producer died of AIDS, and a photographer; the lover of the photographer shot himself, either out of grief or because he knew he was next. A friend of a friend died of emphysema, another of viral pneumonia, another of hepatitis picked up on a tropical vacation, another of spinal meningitis. 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.”
Therefore, when the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come stretches his long arm over Vincent, we are scarcely surprised. Atwood’s foreshadowings have amply warned us. But, like the viewers of the Torrington program, who learn that the frozen man died of lead poisoning from the canned food the explorers took along on their journey, we want to know why Vincent died—and the hospital’s pat diagnosis of “a mutated virus that didn’t even have a name yet” explains nothing. After Vincent’s death Jane becomes frightened of acid rain and pesticides, but what she is really frightened of is mortality itself. Neither she or Vincent had the things which give human beings a legacy that outlasts their limited lifespan—children, for instance. They would have considered those things too conventional, too bourgeois.
So the body that died but did not perish, preserved under the permafrost for 150 years, both fascinates and repels Jane. She is aware that by now Vincent may have decomposed more than Torrington has. His quirky apartment, once the embodiment of the person he was, “has all been broken up now, sold, given away.” But if this is all there is, what is the point? The story ends with the image of the litter in the street outside Jane’s window, looking like “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.” Jane does not know what is essential; she only knows what is passing away.
“Age of Lead” can be found in the Atwood collection Wilderness Tips, available from Amazon here.
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