Human Perceptions of Natural Spaces in Nils and Surfacing
Human relationships to space are perceived through memory, language, and emotional ties. Because Selma Lagerlöf’s Nils: The Wonderful Adventures of Nils and The Further Adventures of Nils Holgersson and Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and both deal with non-human identifying protagonists, these methods of perception are questioned. The surfacer makes judgements based off the faults of humanity through denying her past experiences and emotional ties. Her struggle with language restricts her from actualizing and articulating them. Nils reconstructs his idea of nature after his adventures with the geese. He can communicate with animals and appreciate nature as a “thumbietot.” Even though these characters are physically or mentally non-human, their reliance or resistance of human perceptions, such as family, memory, and language, show that relationships to natural space matters.
Past experiences and relationships play important roles in configuring space. Both Nils and the surfacer have strained relationships with their parents, yet are closely intertwined with mothers. Nils runs away from his parents, but on his journey, he learns how much he really cares about them. The cow recalls memories of the old peasant woman, saying once her children grew up, they ventured away from home. They went off to a “strange land” and never returned to help their mother (Lagerlöf 166). One can compare the children to Nils, who has run away from his mother. This story evokes a sense of guilt for not considering her mother, and he realizes he does not want to leave his mother like them. Fulfilling the cow’s wishes to put her mistress to rest serves as a reparation for his remorse. The narrator says, “He had not been such a one that anybody could long for him, but what he had not been, perhaps he could become” (175). Initially Nils was not a kind and devoted son, so becoming one would give his parents reason to long for him. When Nils observes the portraits of her children, he “thought that they all stared blindly into vacancy — and did not want to see.” This illustrates the children’s lack of perception, and Nils does not want to follow in their footsteps. He says, “Poor you…your mother is dead. You cannot make reparation now, because you went away from her. But my mother is living!” This is a rather insightful quote, showing how his perception changed on this journey. This is also the first time he remembers his familial ties, which emphasizes his human emotions, even in a non-human body, and relates them to space. Had the children not been away from home, they would have a better relationship with their mother and the space around them. Lagerlöf continues: “Here he paused, and nodded and smiled to himself. ‘My mother is living…Both Father and Mother are living’” (175). He realizes he still has a chance to make reparations with his parents, and is comforted by that opportunity. Nils specifically mentions his mother, and one can note Akka’s role as a mother figure. Despite her doubts, she agrees to let him stay with the geese. In fact, she played a similar role in Gorgo the Eagle’s life, in which Akka is his “foster mother” (300). The maternal significance of Akka combined with the story of the old peasant woman allows Nils to become closer to nature and reconsider his own familial relationships.
The children in the memory resemble the surfacer’s peers. The surfacer returns to Quebec to find her father, but they do not empathize with her. She says: “They all disowned their parents long ago, the way you’re supposed to” (Atwood 17). She makes it sound like disowning your parents is a rite of passage into adulthood, which is rather inhuman. Her separation from her parents already puts tension on their relationship, yet even more so due to her unreliable memories of hem. She tries to remember her mother, but she is only certain on photographs of her in a gray leather jacket feeding blue jays. She then finds her missing father’s body in the lake, vividly describing the corpse (143). Her parents are dead and thus only reduced to images, only characterized through faulty memory, which resembles disownment.
Language is a component of space because we use it in description. Lagerlöf employs vivid descriptions to paint the landscape of Sweden. The real world is used as a text, and Nils uses language to articulate what he sees. For instance, Nils describes Skåne as a “big checked cloth,” in which he “saw nothing but checkmarks upon checkmarks. Some were broad and ran crosswise, and some were long and narrow — all over, there were angles. Nothing was round, and nothing was crooked” (Lagerlöf 19). Here, Nils uses language, specifically metaphor, to articulate the visuals of the Southern country. When Nils returns home and becomes human again, he cannot speak to the geese any longer. The geese become “strangely quiet and withdrew from him, as if to say ‘Alas! he is a man. He does not understand us; we do not understand him!’” (Lagerlöf 405). This loss of communication between Nils and the geese seperates human and nature, unlike the the surfacer, whose stubbornness towards language brings her closer to nature. Similar to the surfacer longing to be non-human, Nils wishes to be a thumbietot again so he can travel with the geese. Because he cannot rely on language, he uses the perception of his past experiences and emotional bond with the geese to relate to the natural space of Sweden. The surfacer, however, must abandon language in order to achieve the same affect.
In the beginning of the novel, the surfacer states, “Now we’re on my home ground, foreign territory. My throat constricts, as it learned to do when I discovered people could say words that would go into my ears meaning nothing” (Atwood 7). The comparison of her “home ground” to a “foreign territory” sounds contradictory. Despite partly growing up in Quebec, the surfacer constantly feels like a foreigner. “Words…meaning nothing” references French, since she cannot understand it; she cannot grasp its meaning. This statement highlights how foreign she feels in every aspect of life: in language, in space, and as a human. To find refuge from all these social, cultural, and linguistic clashes, she turns to nature.
The surfacer remembers her mother and Madame. She says, “neither knew more than five words of the other’s language and after the opening Bonjours both would unconsciously raise their voices as though talking to a deaf person” (Atwood 17). This memory relates to the surfacer to her mother and justifies her own struggle with language. Both mother and daughter struggle to communicate in French, which highlights feelings of foreignness. The complication of language is paralleled during the surfacer’s experience at the store, where the woman mocks her accent (22). This incident alienates her from the French people as well as the language. The struggle to communicate with others on a linguistic level illustrates her foreignness. Here the surfacer is embarrassed about her lack of linguistic skills, but she begins to despise language, even going as far to claim that she will not teach her baby language. She thinks of language as a human way of perception, which she will refuse to engage in because she does not identify as human. The surfacer also recalls the women resorting to screaming to understand each other, a primal and animalistic way of communication (17). When the surfacer goes mad, she too becomes primal and animalistic. This memory not only links her back to her mother, but it also foreshadows her future in the novel.
Another prediction of her primeval conclusion is her weaking grasp on the English language. Initially the surfacer feels more comfortable speaking English, but even that language becomes bizzarre. She says: “I had to concentrate in order to talk to him, the English words seemed imported, foreign; it was like trying to listen to two separate conversations, each interrupting the other” (Atwood 151-152). She cannot make sense of David’s words through the lack of perception of language. becomes disconnected from her identities an English speaker and as someone who should speak French, which severs her ties to language and thus humanity. She even claims: “Language divides us into fragments. I want to be whole” (147). Identity has always been foreign to the surfacer, especially as a human being. When she goes mad, she begins to reject aspects of human culture and civilization, such as language. This further isolates her from humanity and brings her closer to nature and animals.
Both Nils and the surfacer feel foreign in their spaces until they become aware of nature. The surfacer denounces her humanity, so her relationship to space is primal and inhuman, as is her identity. This distances her from reality, yet brings her closer to the natural space of Canada. Even as a non-human entity, Nils uses human methods of perception to define his relationship to space. Using language and forming an emotional bond with animals brings him closer to the natural space of Sweden. While Nils makes sense of the natural space through human values, such as family and language, the surfacer must dismiss them in order to embody a non-human identity and become closer to the natural space.
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