Margaret Atwood’s Footnote to the Amnesty Report on Torture intrigued me right away because of the title. Unlike Robert Frost’s poem entitled “The Road Not Taken,” the title is concrete. The title, to me, wasn’t descriptive of the poem at all. I think that was the intention. Footnotes are used to acknowledge any direct idea or opinion. This poem takes the reader into the mind of a simple janitor and shows the reader what he sees. This poem had the potential to be very cliché, but by looking at the torture chamber through the eyes of a simple janitor, Atwood brings a new set of eyes and experiences to the subject.
Once I started to read the poem, I stepped back and looked at the bigger picture. The poem starts off by immediately dispelling all connotations of the word “torture chamber.” The word “torture chamber” evokes different images for everyone. Atwood lists some of the common images in lines 3-9. Then, she begins to delve deeper into the janitor. Stanzas 1 and 2 completely bombard your senses by attempting to put you into this torture chamber with the janitor. Stanza 1 gives the reader a visual on what this chamber looks like (lines 10-14), while stanza 2 explains the stench of this chamber (sense of smell).
One of the biggest tools that Atwood uses to portray the grotesque nature of this janitor’s job is images that play on the reader’s sense of sight. Atwood immediately employs this tool in the first stanza when she dispels what torture chambers are not. In stanza 2, Atwood mainly uses simile to relay that to the reader. In stanza 3, by telling the reader what the man does on a day-to-day basis, the reader has a clear view of where this janitor is coming from. Stanza 5 is all about what the janitor has seen: “torn fingers and ragged tongues (line 41)…” In stanza 7, Atwood uses the metaphor of a wall to show the reader he wants to disconnect himself from his job. Even though the janitor is not in the torture chamber to be tortured for information, he is in a way being tortured because of the fear of not giving his wife the money for food and having his children taken away. Lines 68-76 constantly repeat the word “afraid.”
Overall, this poem really strikes a chord with readers that might not be familiar to poems because it uses very easy to understand words, while it packs a lot of emotions. This is a really simple story (because of the language) about a man who just wants to work to feed his family, but in doing so, he loses a sense of being human because he’s doused in fear.