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Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  718 Ratings  ·  49 Reviews
When first published in 1972, Survival was considered the most startling book ever written about Canadian literature. Since then, it has continued to be read and taught, and it continues to shape the way Canadians look at themselves. Distinguished, provocative, and written in effervescent, compulsively readable prose, Survival is simultaneously a book of criticism, a manif ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published March 23rd 2004 by McClelland & Stewart (first published January 1st 1972)
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Oct 14, 2011 rated it really liked it

Ms Atwood is as magnificent a reader as she is a writer. And she's read more Canlit than I probably ever will. Perhaps I'll read less than I might have done after this: she doesn't make it sound terribly cheery.

A point that she freely acknowledges. For example on page 281 she asks the question; " What happens in Canadian literature when boy meets girl? And what sort of boy, and what sort of girl? If you've got this far, you may predict that when boy meets girl she gets cancer and he gets hit by

I think this is the first time ever I’ve read a book of literary criticism without being familiar with the name of at least some of the writers it was talking about (in fact I know of two of them, Alice Munro and Leonard Cohen, but theses ones are too little discussed to really count).

It was a strange feeling, as when familiar ground becomes suddenly unfamiliar, however, it did not stir any inferiority complex, since I’m fully aware my “Calit” knowledge is very limited. In fact, this is one of
Mar 05, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: can-con, 2013, nonfiction
I picked up the book Survival A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature because as much as I do love Canadian Literature, I'm not a terribly critical reader and I thought I could benefit from an esteemed author such as Margaret Atwood pointing me in the direction of what I should be reading. She states in the preface to this book that she undertook its writing with the hope that it could be used as a teaching guide in high school/college and I'm afraid that it came off a little textbookish to me. ...more
Oct 26, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Angenehme, leicht lesbare Einführung in die kanadische Literatur, die subjektiv und nicht ganz aktuell ist, da sie bereits 1972 verfasst wurde. Dennoch liefert das Buch interessanten Input zur Diskussion, was den eigentlich kanadische Literatur ist oder sein kann. Anhand von Vergleichen zu entsprechenden Motiven in der englischen und der US-amerikanischen Literatur definiert sie, was dem gegenüber das kanadische Motiv sein könnte und belegt dies mit Werken der kanadischen Literatur. So sei beisp ...more
An interesting and enlightening read on the traditions of Canadian literature.

What is Canadian literature about? A simple enough question in theory but with a more complicated answer that is discussed throughout the book. The short answer is this: survival and victims.

Atwood doesn't paint a pretty picture of our literature, in fact it's the opposite of pretty. Dark, dreary, isolating, pessimistic, etc. are but a few of the words I'd use to describe it.

With such a dreary backdrop though, there i
aka canlit is depressing and insecure and if you finish this book, you can take a long break from it to enjoy bodice ripping, serial killer american paperback novels of sex, murder and intrigue that do not benefit society whatsoever.

aka winter in canada is generally very, very long, contains a great deal of snow and has, thusly, penetrated the psyche of its writers until it owns a piece of their very souls. chilling their metaphors to ice.
Nov 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely brilliant! Atwood has showed once again her absolute mastery of the Art. She dances gracefully from novel to poetry, to science fiction, to satire, to essay. Absolutely brilliant piece of work, as always educating but fun a light-hearted. It reminded me of V. Woolf's Three Guineas (esp. the postmodernist, feminist approach). definitely makes for a great read, together with the Edible Woman. I'd give it more stars if I could.
Never could stand Atwood's fiction. Turns out I can't abide her non-fiction, either. Oh well. It's a classic of Canadian literary studies, just not for me.
3.5. Atwood raised some interesting points, but this was very much a product of its time and I'd be interested in reading the same examination of more contemporary work.
Mar 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
One must admit: this book needed to be written.
Dani (The Pluviophile Writer)
"Literature is not only a mirror; it is also a map, a geography of the mind. Our literature is one such map, if we can learn to read it as our literature, as the product of who and where we have been. We need such a map desperately, we need to know about here, because here is where we live. For the members of a country or a culture, shared knowledge of their place, their here, is not a luxury but a necessity. Without that knowledge, we will not survive.”
Review at The Pluviophile Reader: http://b
This is a really interesting book about the Canadian literary imagination up until the '70s when it was written. It was also a rallying call for Canlit to be unified as a literature and to be taken seriously (and so an important milestone for Canlit nerds like myself). I found the first half of the book particularly compelling (I really enjoyed the chapter on land and how our writers have approached it), but it becomes a bit repetitive and predictable as you get into the second half. While the m ...more
Czarny Pies
Oct 29, 2014 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Students of the history of Canadian literature.
Recommended to Czarny by: It was required reading for Grade 13 English.
This book was published in 1972. The author Margaret Attwood stated that its purpose was to answer the question: "What is Canadian about Canadian literature and the corollary; Why should we bothered."

Margaret Atwood's thesis was that the dominant theme which made Canadian literature unique was that of survival. Canada protagonists could survive or perish but never triumph. Attwood felt that this attitude was derived from the fact that Canada had been founded in law as a British colony and then s
Paula Dembeck
May 10, 2013 rated it liked it
This literary guide by this well known and prolific author was one of the first attempts to provide a framework for Canadian fiction and poetry. Atwood puts forward her thesis that the distinguishing feature of Canadian literature is its symbol of survival, with its central character “the victim”.

Atwood clearly identifies this volume as intended for the Canadian reader rather than the academic, as she tries to answer the question “What is the distinctive factor inherent in Canadian literature?”
Jun 26, 2016 rated it really liked it
This was a pleasant surprise...I have been interested in reading more about cultural differences between Canadians and Americans, and this book was cited a few times in other things I was reading. I figured I would just flip through it, but turns out I really liked it. Who'd have thought a thematic guide to Canadian literature would be such a lovely read? I should read more Margaret Atwood. I haven't read anything else by her in years.
This is probably a bit out of date, since it's like 45 years
Feb 13, 2017 rated it liked it
Survival has lots of insight, in particular the stages of victimhood and their application to Canadian literature. It is interesting how much of it could still apply to literature today (it is written in the 70's); however, Canadian literature has blown up so much, I would love to read her interpretations on current works.
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature is a study of Canadian literature and its themes.

Atwood makes a lot of great and in-depth analyses of Canadian literature from the '80s to the late '90s, but these themes don't necessarily hold up to current Canadian literature. The gist of Atwood's argument is that Canadian literature focuses on the theme of survival and/or isolation in the harsh wilderness of the Great White North (c.f., American literature's theme of pioneering/the Wild West,
Craig Allin
Sep 06, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I've always been intrigued with Atwood's novels, largely because of their mix of almost militant feminism, an ideology I dislike, and the topics of dystopia and distress, which I do enjoy reading about. However, reading through her non-fiction work has really given me new respect for her literary knowledge, and also has helped me understand her own novels more clearly.

This idea that nearly all Canadian literature revolves around the idea of survival, in one form or another, is an interesting wa
Feb 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
Excellent discussion/overview. Much food for thought, well documented and entertaining.

"...I began to feel like the mechanical duck at the fun-fair shooting gallery, though nobody has won the oversized panda yet because I still seem to be quacking.”
... a country needs to hear its own voices, if it is to become or to remain an aware society and a functioning democracy.”… For the members of a country or a culture, shared knowledge of their place, their here, is not a luxury but a necessity. Withou
Mar 20, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Ever the Canadian Ms. Atwood humbly prefaces this book by telling us it isn't mean to be literary criticism or a highly intellectual probing of Canadian literature, then covers quite a span of the country's most well known writers. I've long admired her turn of phrase and abiity to distill things immense into simple images, ideas that remain. In retrospect, her division of early Canadian literature into two categories seems on target. I would say Canada lacked it's own identity until about 1970 ...more
Feb 01, 2015 rated it liked it
Elle écrit bien, madame Atwood. Elle avait le début de la trentaine quand elle a découvert l’existence d’une littérature canadienne, distincte de l’américaine et de la britannique. En quoi est-elle distincte? C’est le propos de ce livre, qui date tout de même pas mal (il en a coulé de l’eau sous les ponts depuis Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel), mais n’en valait pas moins cette réédition au début des années 2000. Comme le dit le titre, ce guide passe en revue les grands thèmes de cette littéra ...more
Martin Bihl
Dec 02, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
this is really brilliant. as someone who is interested in canadian history and culture, i found this insight into the canadian psyche fascinating. i am sure that it offended many when it first came out, and i am also reasonably certain that there are parts of it that ms. atwood would want to modify (this edition was published originally in 1972), but it is truly groundbreaking.

it is also fun to read. sure, there are lots of references to books and authors i'm not familiar with, but the way she w
Michael Cruz
Jun 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
Although it tends to be filled with depressing grounds and futile missions, this book gives us the ideas of themes in CanLit just as much as it tells us about the Canadian psyche, history, and culture. A country estranged from itself and everything else is battling for survival against imperial powers from sea to sea. In this war, we drown in doubt in ever seeing a future worth fighting for much like the fictional characters we built. But, as Atwood argued, we don't need to be victims to nature, ...more
Jan 02, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015, canada, non-fiction
J'ai vraiment (surprenamment?) pris beaucoup de plaisir à lire cet ouvrage, acheté pour la modique somme d'une piasse à la vente 2014 des Amis de la Bibliothèque de Montréal. C'est hyper intéressant de voir Margaret Atwood décortiquer la littérature canadienne telle qu'elle se présentait en 1972 (!), & c'est encore plus fascinant de découvrir avec elle à quel point l'identité canadienne semble alors être une chose fluette & anxieuse, toujours à veille d'éclater en sanglots. Je serais cur ...more
Feb 28, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fab-15
This was much more fun than I expected! This is no dry overview, but rather essays on what constitutes national character and a personal account of reactions to literature. I really didn’t think I had any interest in literary analysis, especially (sorry!) analysis of Canadian literature, but she convinced me it can indeed be of interest. This review of Canadian literature, and the themes that Margaret Atwood has found in it, offers a powerful insight into how Atwood sees her own role as a writer ...more
Jennifer Hatt
Mar 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Why do Canadian writers obsess over dead things and create exquisite characters only to have them frozen, drowned or eaten? This book will tell you, and gave you heading to the library or dusting off those books you should have read years ago.
I admit I started reading this book out of duty and guilt, over my self-declared lack of insight and connection to Canadian writing, but I kept reading it because it was so clearly and cleverly written - informative and well-researched, but deliciously witt
One of the more depressing books that I've read. I can't help but compare the Canadian novel to Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton as it is the singularly most depressing book that I've read.
(view spoiler)
AC Fick
Jul 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Formidably argued, superbly written, fiercely independent of voice and thought, this early collection of Atwood essays on the construction of and ambivalence within Canadian national and nationalist identity as represented in literary output, and how these draw on certain myths and tropes, some indigenous to the north of the North American landmass, others transported with the waves of human settlement, is instructive and informative.
Caryn Cathcart
Jan 04, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2015
Initially published in the early 70s, Survival dared to think critically about Canadian literature when its very existence was a matter of debate. I’m actually upset that this book didn’t find its way into my hands sooner—it could have easily nested at my bedside during my entire university career. And yet, for what's meant to be a pedagogical tool, Survival is READABLE. I was consistently delighted by Atwood’s provocative and accessible prose. Required reading for any Canlit enthusiast.
Stefan Hoeppner
Jan 06, 2012 rated it liked it
Even after forty years, a worthwhile introduction to Canadian literature. For me as a non-expert, however, Atwood's approach seems somewhat monothematic, since *all* themes she touches upon, eventually seem to some down to variations of, well, survival. But maybe that's how Canadian literature used to be...
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FABClub (Female A...: Survival group discussion 9 9 Mar 21, 2015 12:45PM  
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Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto and her master's degree from Radcliffe College.

Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honourary degrees. She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, childr
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“What a lost person needs is a map of the territory, with his own position marked on it so he can see where he is in relation to everything else. Literature is not only a mirror; it is also a map, a geography of the mind. Our literature is one such map, if we can learn to read it as our literature, as the product of who and where we have been. We need such a map desperately, we need to know about here, because here is where we live. For the members of a country or a culture, shared knowledge of their place, their here, is not a luxury but a necessity. Without that knowledge we will not survive.” 16 likes
“...the values ascribed to the Indian will depend on what the white writer feels about Nature, and America has always had mixed feelings about that. At one end of the spectrum is Thoreau, wishing to immerse himself in swamps for the positive vibrations; at the other end is Benjamin Franklin, who didn't like Nature. [p.91]” 5 likes
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