Margaret Atwoods’ “The Immigrant” personalizes the struggle of immigrants by succinctly describing some of the toils these people face on a daily basis. Atwood, a Canadian born writer, was born at a time when racist immigration comments were highlighted in policy statutes (Historica Canada n.d.). Yet, during her adult life, she began to see that pro-immigrant switch in the legislative agenda. By the 1970s, around the time that this poem was published, the Human Rights Commission formed in Canada partly to ensure fair and humane treatment to immigrants and other minorities in the country (Historica Canada n.d.). This poem touches on key issues that immigrants battle with: poverty, unfair socio-political conditions, disease, and nostalgia.
Very early in the poem we see Atwood mentioning the bad treatment immigrants must cope with. Atwoods grew up during a time when many displaced Central and Eastern Europeans were received by Canada (Government of Canada 2017). Accordingly, Atwood witnessed that immigrants take the jobs that nobody wants – either because of the amount of physical labor or because of the dangerous working conditions – and as a result, get very little pay despite working full or even over time. In stanza three, Atwood describes how despite the uneasy lifestyle of immigrants, they are prone to maltreatment and belittlement (1976). Immigrants are many times scapegoated during economic recessions or period of national or international unrest. Just as observed today in the political climate of the United States, this was not something Atwood was unfamiliar with.
The author explicitly describes immigrants’ unfair fight against disease by saying they, “hold smelling of vomit, infested, emaciated, their skins grey” (Atwood 3 1976). As immigrants usually have low socioeconomic status, and due to their constant need of moving, they typically lack the time or financial access to health care. If immigrants cannot speak the language of the country they are, if they do not understand the rights they are entitled to under the law, and do not have friends or family where they reside, they may find themselves undergoing physical distress as a result to one or more ailments.
Atwood describes immigrants carrying their possessions, such as, “carpetbags and trunks with clothes, dishes,” and photos of family members (5 1976). This image is one that suggests that immigrants are always missing home, yet are always carrying with themselves items and mental memories to remember their loved ones. This also subconsciously makes the reader understand the connection between the love an immigrant has for their family members and the physical and economic struggles they are willing to undergo to secure their family’s well-being.
The ending of the poem with, “day and night riding across an ocean of unknown land to an unknown land,” is indicative of a never-ending struggle for immigrants to travel from one place to another (Atwood 9 1976). By placing this line at the culmination of her poem, Atwood is trying to tell the reader that even though her poem concluded, an immigrant’s journey is never really done. This notion is further elaborated by her talking about how a migrant’s mind is a huge map with red lines written all over – lines which incessantly keep moving, pushing the migrant “further and further” away from their home (Atwood 8 1976). These examples of narration were made to convey that just as migrants are adjusting and assimilating to a new place, they must venture to find a new one.
This poem is a homage to the many struggles that Atwood and other Canadians saw immigrants lived through. The poem captures the essence of what an immigrant is by narrating the injustice and the irony of an immigrant’s life. All the hard work they endure – both physically and mentally – is worth it to sustain a decent quality of life or dream of a better one for their loved ones. Yet, it is precisely the title of “immigrant” that keeps these people away from those they love and want to protect.
- Atwood, Margaret. “The Immigrant.” Poetry Archive. Poetry Archive, 1976,