In considering what might best represent the themes of Margaret Atwood’s “The City Planners,” the idea of a doll’s house seems very appropriate. Atwood’s poem is not “small,” and she is writing about issues as large as the landscape she studies. At the same time, however, she has several points to make that are reflected in everything a doll’s house is. Put another way, the flimsy and artificial construction that is a doll’s house perfectly represents the weak efforts to create reality Atwood attacks in “The City Planners.”
To begin with, a doll’s house reflects Atwood’s themes because the poem is based on a single concept: humanity continually seeks to tailor the natural world through ugly and false constructions, which are doomed to die in a parody of natural disaster. Atwood makes this point consistently and harshly, from the opening contrast of the hot (and natural) sun and the rows of houses on the street below it. Using a plural voice, Atwood goes so far as to blatantly speak of this insistence on order and sanitation as offensive. She is mocking the power of these artificial elements, so ordered and level that normal variations like a dent in a car door are shameful. A doll’s house then stands as a model of what Atwood sees as unnatural. These houses are the apex of artificiality in terms of how people feel living should occur. Then, there is the strong sense that it is suburbia Atwood is addressing, or concepts of a “perfect” suburbia. She talks about the sanitary trees, the mowers cutting geometric patterns on lawns, and an environment in which vulgar shouting is not allowed. The traditional doll’s house is the expression of such an ordered suburbia. Moreover, as the poem goes on to document how these worlds fall apart, the doll’s house is relevant as an inherently fragile structure.
The correctness of this object is also reinforced by the devices Atwood uses in the poem. The tone is even and cold; there is little actual opinion or feeling here, and more a witnessing or projection of inevitable doom. These aspects render the poem something of a miniature critique on one factor of modern life, and the size of the doll’s house is true to both minimal size and coldness of tone. There is a lifelessness to a doll’s house because of its “perfection,” and it is the lifelessness of the larger landscapes that offends Atwood and is clear in her hard tone. Metaphor through a kind of personification is everywhere: the power mower’s whine is “rational,” the rows of houses are “pedantic,” and the natural grass is “discouraged.” So too is the inevitable decay and fall presented in these terms. Paint is a “bruise” on a brick wall and a plastic hose is coiled in a “vicious” way, and these elements suggest the sinister quality of a doll’s house. More exactly, as Atwood uses multiple metaphor to underscore the power of inanimate objects, so too does the artificiality of a doll’s house bring to mind the weaknesses and failings when human beings seek to order nature and establish perfection.
Lastly, the doll’s house serves to reflect Atwood’s themes because it is so suited for the deconstruction she describes. Turning to hyperbole and graphic imagery, Atwood points to a near future when the planners, oblivious to larger realities, will go on frantically drawing their plans as the world they made falls apart. The houses will slide into the seas, clearly destined to break apart as easily as toys. A doll’s house is fully emblematic of this imagery and metaphor of foolish plans dying, for few things better represent both the transitory quality of artificial creation and the human drive to order ordinary living and the home. Most importantly, and obviously, it is the real toy that stands in for the “big toys” of the planners. As Atwood has it, the planners have no sense of what is real or lasting, and a doll’s house perfectly expresses what is not truly real. It certainly cannot stand up to the “blizzards” of reality, in Atwood’s metaphor, that must crush the planners’ designs. In basic terms, everything about Margaret Atwood’s “The City Planners” is a thematic cry of disgust at artificiality and the futility of creating it, particularly in regard to homes, so a doll’s house is an ideal lens for analysis of the poem’s meaning.
Glossary of Symbolism of the Object
Size: the minimal size of the doll’s house supports the smallness of the poem’s subject.
Fragility: the doll’s house is as weak as the efforts of the city planners.
Artificiliality: the doll’s house is as inherently false as the structures in the poem.
Transience: like the houses and streets of the poem, a doll’s house is not likely to survive any large change or damage.
Purpose: as the houses in the poem reflect a human ambition to assert control, a doll’s house is a minimal expression of the same thing.
Futility: the doll’s house is as doomed an exercise in control of habitat as the houses of the poem because it seeks to order natural forces in a precise way.
Sanitary: the idealized suburban order of the planners is of an enforced sanitation standard, captured in the extreme cleanness of a doll’s house.
Tailor: Atwood stresses the urgency of the planners to edit the landscape, a tailoring drive represented by the precision of a doll’s house.
Deconstruction: a doll’s house virtually invites destruction, as do the efforts of the planners.
Delusion: the blind focus of the planners is similar to the unrealistic intent in constructing a doll’s house.
Inanimate: as the structures of the planners are lifeless, so too is a doll’s house.
Perfection: ironically meant, in that the perfection desired by the planners is the same as that gong to the creation of a doll’s house.