The Franklin Expedition and its Connotations in The Age of Lead

In Margaret Atwood’s The Age of Lead, a woman named Jane reminisces about her deceased friend and lover, Vincent, as she watches a TV show about the discovery of the failed Franklin expedition and the recovered body of one of the men on the expedition, John Torrington. While this text may seem like a simple story about Jane remembering her past, the presence of the Franklin Expedition is a metaphor for Jane’s life and the life of humanity as a whole. Additionally, several comparisons of John Torrington to Vincent allow for a more in-depth lens into Jane’s feelings toward Vincent as well as her own life. The Franklin Expedition as a symbol and comparison is important because it allows the reader to see Jane and her worries in a more constructive way. The addition of the Franklin Expedition to the story may seem like a worthless anecdote to the story, but thinking about the expedition in this way allows for a deeper understanding of the story and Jane as a person. Atwood uses the Franklin Expedition as a symbol for the hopelessness Jane feels in her life. Jane looks back at Vincent, his life and death similarities to John Torrington, and she also reflects on the degradation and hopelessness of human society, which is comparable to how the expedition died: an unknown, human-caused death of lead poisoning. Vincent and John Torrington are comparable characters, and how the death and failure of the Franklin Expedition relate aptly to Jane’s feeling of hopelessness and dissatisfaction with the world that is seemingly crumbling around her.
Throughout the story, Atwood indicates several times using analogous imagery that John Torrington and Vincent’s stories are eerily similar. For example, the first description of John Torrington reveals him covered in ice: “But it [the permafrost] froze again after the man was covered up, so that when he was brought to the surface he was completely enclosed in ice” (Atwood, 147). When Vincent is in the hospital, Jane sees him “packed in ice, for the pain” (Atwood, 160). Both men are captured in ice at the time of their death: frozen to hold on to the last bit of life they still held. It is worth noting that their last moments were highlighted by the fact that they both appear to be mentally present at the time of their death. John Torrington’s face, encased in ice, seems so present that Jane notes: “He must have known it; you can see it on his face” (Atwood 158). Vincent, in a similar state of mind, uses humor to deflect the fact that he is dying and that Jane is upset about it. He knows he is going to die, yet he is calm and collected, knowing his own mortality is approaching.
Aside from the obvious death scene, there are also several parallels throughout the rest of the story that create connections between John Torrington and Vincent. The descriptions of their gazes are worthy of note here. John Torrington is described, after being melted from the ice, as having “an indecipherable gaze, innocent, ferocious, amazed, but contemplative, like a werewolf meditating, caught in a flash of lightning at the exact split second of his tumultuous change” (Atwood 148). Vincent, on the other hand, is described as “hollow-eyed even then” by Jane, who portrays Vincent’s eyes similarly throughout the novel (Atwood 150). Atwood even compares the feet of the two men, at the times of their death: they both have bare, white, thin feet: John Torrington’s look like “the feet of someone who’s been walking on a cold floor, on a winter day” (Atwood 154), and as Vincent is “laid out on the ice like a salmon,” Jane notices his “white, thin feet” (Atwood 160). The importance of these comparisons is to draw the reader to the parallels of the two men, to invoke the same feelings from each, and to demonstrate how these parallels are influential to understanding the relationship between Jane and Vincent. Vincent is an old soul, caught in the moment of his own adolescence, as he ages he becomes even more complicated to Jane, who wants a relationship with him. Their want for an “unburdened life,” as this essay will discuss further on, is highlighted by Vincent’s incapability to finally succumb to the adult life they mocked as children. So, Vincent is still “frozen” in the mindset that prevents him from accessing the same adult patterns that Jane has, just as John Torrington was frozen in his last youthful moments, never to see old age.
            While the comparison of John Torrington to Vincent has its own effect on Jane’s life and perception of Vincent, the Franklin Expedition also directly relates to Jane’s views, goals, and perceptions. Jane discusses how she finds the Expedition appealing:
…the idea of exploration appealed to her then: to get onto a boat and just go somewhere, somewhere maples, off into the unknown. To launch yourself into fright; to find things out. There was something daring and noble about it, despite all of the losses and failures, or perhaps because of them. (Atwood 150)
Jane connects with the Franklin Expedition because she sees the significance in the freedom of it, the chance for exploration and the ability to let go of her overburdened life. Throughout the short story, Jane and Vincent are seeking “freedom from the world of mothers, the world of precautions, the world of burdens and fate and heavy female constraints upon the flesh. They wanted a life without consequences” (Atwood 154). Jane has always sought that freedom: to go where she wants, to explore new things, and not worry about the old life she would be leaving behind. Watching the show about the Franklin Expedition interests her because it reminds her of her memories she had with Vincent, the “exploring” they did together, but also because it reminds her of a life that she could have had; maybe not on a ship sailing for the Northwest Passage, but a life that had more opportunities for exploring and adventuring.
The Franklin Expedition metaphor does directly apply to Jane’s desires and her relationship to Vincent, but the Expedition (and especially their deaths) also have deeper connotations in the society that Jane finds herself in. For example, Jane describes the area she lives in as decaying:
In the eighties, things started to slide. Toronto was not so much fun anymore. There were too many people, too many poor people. You could see them begging on the streets, which were clogged with fumes and cars. The cheap artists’ studios were torn down or converted to coy and upscale office space, the artists had migrated elsewhere. Whole streets were torn up or knocked down. The air was full of windblown grit. People were dying. They were dying too early. (Atwood 159)
This is an important facet for Jane to notice because she wants a life without the “hard” facts, without the responsibility of dealing with the desolation that Toronto is falling into. Jane also describes the deaths of people around her in Toronto. She expresses that “it was as if they had been weakened by some mysterious agent, a thing like a colorless gas, scentless and invisible, so that any germ that happened along could invade their bodies, take them over” (Atwood 159). Just like the society of Toronto, the livelihood of her peers and neighbors is slowly falling into disarray. These descriptions are important because they demonstrate Jane’s attitude and emotions that connect to the society she lives in, which is as negative as her opinions about the responsibilities of an adult life that her and Vincent often made fun of.
            The Franklin Expedition directly connects to this notion. Jane discovers that the scientists uncovered the reason for the explorers’ death:
“…it was the tin cans that did it, a new invention back then, a new technology, the ultimate defense against starvation and scurvy. The Franklin Expedition was excellently provisioned with tin cans, stuffed full of meat and soup and soldered together with lead. The whole expedition got lead-poisoning. It invaded their bones, their lungs, their brains, weakening them and confusing their thinking, so that at the end those that had not yet died in the ships set out in an idiotic trek across the stony, icy ground, pulling a lifeboat laden down with toothbrushes, soap, handkerchiefs, and slippers, useless pieces of junk. When they were found ten years later, they were skeletons in tattered coats, lying where they’d collapsed. They’d been heading back towards the ships. It was what they’d been eating that killed them.” (Atwood 161)
Just as the Franklin Expedition died slowly and unknowingly from lead poisoning, the society that Jane lives in is slowly dying from the “unknown” dangers that humans have created for themselves: economic and environmental failure. The Franklin Expedition didn’t know what they were dying from, but they (as humans, in a sense) invented their own deaths, because they invented the lead-laced tin cans. Similarly, Earth has “maple groves dying of acid rain, hormones in the beef, mercury in the fish, pesticides in the vegetables, poison sprayed on the fruit, God knows what in the drinking water” (Atwood 159). The analogy here is that like the Franklin Expedition, humanity is inventing its own death, and will eventually die out silently and slowly from the excess of litter and chemicals that it contains. As the short story ends, Jane walks down the street picking up litter, ineffectively trying to save the world from its own “lead-laced” resources.
            After Jane sees Vincent dying, Jane wisely realizes what could be considered the “leitmotif” (to reference Vincent and Jane’s own theme) of the short story itself: “There were consequences after all; but they were the consequences to things you didn’t even know you’d done” (Atwood 161). The Franklin Expedition suffered these unseen consequences, and Jane also suffers the consequences vicariously through humanity. Vincent and Jane had to face the very real effects of mortality in the world, directly and indirectly. Jane, throughout the story, is forced to deal with very real, long-lasting issues that are prevalent in the world, and tries her best to stop them, but the attitudes that she and Vincent have are too innocent to allow them to function happily in a crumbling, responsibility-filled world. The Franklin Expedition is a means of understanding the world that Jane is living in. Through it, we can see that Jane and Vincent’s perspective of a “burden-free” life is unrealistic, and by pursuing it, they receive the burden of trying to understand their complex, consequence-filled world— one they have no power over.
Works Cited
Atwood, Margaret. “The Age of Lead.” Wilderness Tips, Anchor Books, 1998, pp. 145-162.