The Age of Lead
It is said that hindsight is 20/20, that we can only see clearly when looking at the past and seeing the mistakes we may have made. In relationships this is especially true and we frequently do not see what went wrong until the relationship is over. In her short story titled “The Age of Lead,” Margaret Atwood reviews this concept that only in retrospect can we know our faults. Jane is the protagonist of the story. She is a woman who relives the relationship she had with Vincent. Vincent died when he was 42 years old from a mysterious disease that no one knows about. Jane begins to think about Vincent while watching a television program about a man uncovered after many decades frozen in ice and she begins to reminisce about Vincent. They were lovers in life and Jane wonders about their relationship together and what it meant.
When Vincent was still alive, Jane’s perspective on their life and relationship together was ideal. Jane Vincent dreamed of a perfect life of freedom where they would be free to do what they wanted. They craved a life with nothing to hold them down and nothing was protected from them, where they were completely free from judgment, critique and social obligations. They compared their ideal life to an advertisement for tampons that they would see. In the tampon advertisement, the tampons were marketed as ” “no belts, no pins, no pads, no chafing” which is how they wanted their life together to be. But after the death of Vincent, Jane realizes in looking back that this idea of perfect freedom is just an illusion.
Jane now knows that the dreams she shared with Vincent could never be real. She knows this because she realizes that there are “consequences to things you didn’t even know you’d done.” This means that she could never really be free because there will always be something to hold her down, a consequence for her actions even though she was not aware that she had even done anything. This is seen through the dead body of Vincent. Vincent suffered and died from a mysterious disease that no one could figure out. In a way, he paid the consequence for something he did not know of and there was not anything he could do about it. Unlike when you smoke and you get lung cancer, you know you should not have been smoking. Vincent did not know what he did wrong to be sick and he died tragically at a relatively young age.
When Jane thinks of Vincent, dead, and realizes that his death is a reflection of her false ideals about freedom. This is symbolic for the desires and dreams Jane had with Vincent that were buried with him when he died. If his body is uncovered, it will be rotten and decomposed, and it is as if she is uncovering those lost dreams and this is why she is thinking about the life and relationship she had with Vincent. The opportunities and hopes that Jane had died when Vincent died unexpectedly and now, just as Vincent’s corpse is decomposed, Jane realizes that those ideas she had are unreal and deteriorated as well.
The fact that her dreams were buried with Vincent reflects that in its own way, Vincent was the one who kept Jane from not having her prefect life of freedom, that her hopes were tied to him and he was the one who unknowingly held her down and sugar coated her world to seem ideal and perfect. Jane desired a life of freedom where she would not be tied down, just like the advertisement for tampons that she would watch. She thought she shared this dream with Vincent but after he died and her hopes died too, she comes to the acknowledgment that she would never have been able to attain her perfect life of freedom because Vincent, her lover, was the one who held her down. Vincent restricted her and cushioned her world from the outside reality. Jane would never have the world she wanted with Vincent because it was all an illusion.
Margaret Atwood’s short story reflects the illusions we fall into on every front of life and how relationships can keep us tied down. It shows that sometimes we can only see the mistakes we make in looking back at our past and that relationships can often be illusions.
Atwood, Margaret. Wilderness Tips. New York: Anchor, 1998.