June 11, 2013 by Vicki
Margaret Atwood’s Life Before Man examines the intersection of the lives of three characters, Elizabeth, Nate and Lesje. At the start of the novel, Elizabeth and Nate have been married for many years and have decided to have an open relationship. Both Elizabeth and Nate share information about and support the other’s efforts to have affairs. The novel starts after one of Elizabeth’s affairs ends with her partner, Chris, committing suicide. We read how both Elizabeth and Nate cope with this situation and the strain that it puts upon their relationship. As the story progresses, Nate seeks out the companionship of Lesje, a solitary dreamer of dinosaurs who works in the same museum as Elizabeth. Nate eventually leaves Elizabeth, with Elizabeth’s blessing, to live with Lesje.
In Life Before Man, I did not sympathize with a single character. Elizabeth is a controlling, manipulative little woman who I simply detested. She gives no appearance of caring for anyone within the novel, not even her own children. She never gives any time or attention to her children. Instead, she uses her children as the means with which to control Nate.
Nate is the most weak-willed, listless, male character I have ever encountered in all of my reading. While Elizabeth grieves through the loss of Chris, Nate makes every effort to support her despite his rage. He doesn’t tell her about the way her affair has affected the children or him. He simply struggles on and seeks a new affair for himself with Lesje. He feels himself being torn between his love for Lesje and his home with Elizabeth and the children. The stress begins to affect his reasoning and his behaviour. Ho won’t or can’t, however, decide between them. In the end, Elizabeth has to tell him to leave her for Lesje. Of course, Elizabeth uses the situation to earn free babysitting from Lesje without a moment’s notice.
I could almost have sympathy for Lesje. I believe she truly loves Nate and respects Elizabeth. She finds herself in an untenable situation that she simply cannot find her way around. Her solution, however, loses her my sympathy. She resorts to spending large amounts of time day-dreaming about living in the Jurassic age with the dinosaurs. She seems to have no connection with reality or other people. Her boyfriend before Nate rapes her during the course of the novel. Lesje is so removed from reality that she actually thinks of him with nostalgia as someone who could not hurt her.
I did not enjoy reading Life Before Man. I did not even find it educational or interesting as I found Surfacing. I found Life Before Man very disappointing in its character creation and development. None of the characters changed through the course of the novel. Their lives were destroyed and reformed but, somehow, their character remained the same. I can see that the novel tries to examine the destruction of a marriage. For me, however, the lack of a sympathetic character meant that I really didn’t care about the marriage.
- Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle (boudicabooks.org)