An important element in Canadian literature is the struggle for survival and the need to protect offspring at all cost in order to ensure the continuation of the race. Whether they are animals, natives or settlers, these struggling individuals fear their extinction and will often fight against one another for the right to survive. Despite the fervent efforts displayed by the members of each of these groups, many characters are unable to establish a stable future for the next generation.
Do Seek Their Meat From God is a strong example of the fierce competition for survival between humans and animals. The panthers find themselves in a confrontation with humans when they threaten the life of a human child. Roberts notes that the panthers do not act out of malice, but simply out of necessity. They depend on meat for "not only their own but the lives of their blind and helpless young" (Atwood/Weaver, 22). The man is also compelled by a similar need to secure the life of his own kind, the only difference being that the man does not know that the endangered child is in fact his own. The author uses the man's sense of compassion as a method of separating humans from animals. Humans are portrayed as a caring and civilized race in contrast to the panthers who are seen as wild beasts with ghostly features like "spectral grey" coats (19). This contrast creates a positive image of humans and therefore leaves the reader with a sense of pride when the man defeats the panthers. Atwood sees these animals in Roberts' work as "pathetic" victims instead of tragic heroes. "Tragedy requires a flaw of some kind on the part of the hero, but pathos as a literary mode simply demands that an innocent victim suffer" (Atwood, 75). It can be disputed that although the panthers have "the strength, the cunning, the deadly swiftness"(22) and "ears keener than those of man" (21), they lack the compassion and reason of humans, and this is their tragic flaw. The panthers are not exactly heroes, nor are they completely pathetic. These animals are only trying to accomplish "that for which nature [has] so exquisitely designed them" (22), and finally lose the primal battle for survival.
Like the panthers, the native people are also depicted as the losers in the strife for survival in the short story One-Two-Three Little Indians. In this case, it is the survival of the native culture that is in danger of being consumed by the European culture of the settlers. Big Tom fights to keep his culture alive by passing it on to his child. He talks to his baby "in the old dialect" and tells him the "ageless folk-tale of his people" (82). Tom's son represents the future of the native people. Unfortunately, his son's health is fading like the memories of his ancestors. Tom grows worried about his child's condition, but his wife does not share his fear. This lack of concern is also evident in her attitude towards her culture. She has forsaken her native ways and adopted a more European view of life. Mary would rather go to dances and dress in white peoples' clothes than spend time with her own family. Without the help of his wife, Tom must preserve his culture on his own in an increasingly European world. Tom is faced with the dilemma of surrendering to the white peoples' image of his culture in order to provide for his son who is his only hope for retaining the native traditions. He wears a feather in a band around his head to sell more baskets. Sadly, this "Indian" image leads to the death of his child. People do not take him seriously with a feather on his head, and so he is unable to find a ride to the doctor. His baby dies, and with him dies the future of his people.
Bess, the protagonist in the short story Extradited, understands the importance of her baby's future, and is willing to destroy a man's life to fulfill her duty to her child. Bessie's character has many animal attributes which explain her intense compulsion to protect her family. Her strong maternal affection is described as "an agreement of rapacity and animal instinct" (3). She is driven to "prey on all things in her child's behalf," even if it means going against the morals of society (3). Bessie's serpent-like movements reveal her deceptive nature as she "curve[s] serpent-wise in [Sam's] clasp to get her eyes on his eye" (1). She has no qualms about depriving her husband of his dear friend, Joe. She sees him as a threat to her family. She is fiercely jealous of her husband's relationship with him, and sharply tells Sam that she didn't marry him "to have a hired man set before [her] and [her] child" (1). It is ironic that the man she fears will harm her child ends up dying for the life of the baby. This irony is clearly intentional, and the result of a manipulated plot. Atwood comments that "when Canadian writers are writing clumsy or manipulated endings, they are much less likely to manipulate in a positive than they are in a negative direction" (34-35). Crawford is obviously one of these writers. The hero dies, and Bessie learns nothing from his death, holding to her belief that she was only doing her duty. For all her deception and betrayal, she gains nothing, and almost lost her baby's life in the process.
Although these stories end negatively for many of the characters involved in the struggle for survival, there are always positive aspects to be found. Mathews challenges Atwood's view of the protagonists as "failures" by explaining that "success is the ability to work through adversity to a comprehension of human purpose and human limitation" (122). By following the struggles of these characters, the reader is able to gain valuable undertandings of humanity. One can see the similarities in the behaviour of all creatures,including humans, as they strive towards a common goal: survival.
Atwood, Margaret. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Anansi, 1972.
Atwood, Margaret, Robert Weaver, ed. The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories. Ontario: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Crawford, Isabella Valancy. "Extradited." Atwood and Weaver (1-10).
Garner, Hugh. "One-Two-Three Little Indians." Atwood and Weaver (82-91).
Mathews, Robert.. "Survivalism." Canadian Literature: Surrender or Revolution. Toronto: Steel Rail Educational Publishing, 1978.
Roberts, Charles G. D. "Do Seek Their Meat From God." Atwood and Weaver (19-23).