BORN: 1939, Ottawa, Canada
GENRE: Fiction, poetry
Double Persephone (1961)
The Circle Game (1966)
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
The Blind Assassin (2000)
Margaret Atwood. Graham Jepson / Writer Pictures / drr.net
Internationally acclaimed as a novelist, poet, and short story writer, Margaret Atwood has emerged as a major figure in Canadian letters. Her fiction explores the relationship between humanity and nature, unsettling aspects of human behavior, and power as it pertains to gender and political roles. Best known for her novels, Atwood is also admired for her accomplishments as a poet, critic, essayist, and short story writer. Atwood has published more than forty books and has also worked in other media, including motion pictures, television, and theater.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and grew up in suburban Toronto, a metropolitan area that appears in many of her stories and novels. As a child she spent her summers at her family cottage in a wilderness region of Quebec, where her father, a forest entomologist, conducted research. she first began to write while in high school, contributing poetry, short stories, and cartoons to the school newspaper.
Early Acclaim as Poet. As an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, Atwood met the critic Northrop Frye, who introduced her to the poetry of William Blake. Influenced by Blake’s contrasting mythological imagery, Atwood wrote the poems collected in her first volume, Double Persephone (1961). While this work demonstrated her skill for using metaphorical language, it was her second volume of poetry, The Circle Game (1966), that garnered widespread critical recognition. The winner of the 1967 Governor General’s Award, Canada’s highest literary honor, The Circle Game established the major themes of Atwood’s poetry: the inconsistencies of selfperception, the paradoxical nature of language, Canadian identity, and the conflicts between humankind and nature.
From Poet to Novelist During Rise of the Feminist Movement. Atwood’s work was regularly published in the popular Canadian press after the publication of her next volume of verse, The Animals in That Country (1968). After teaching university-level literature and creative-writing classes for a year, Atwood’s poetry began appearing in American as well as Canadian journals and magazines. In 1969, Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman, was published, and she was awarded the Union League Civic and Arts Foundation Prize by the Chicago magazine Poetry. She also began writing the screenplay for The Edible Woman that same year. She soon became recognized as a novelist as well as a poet.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were watershed years in the women’s rights movements in the United States and Canada. The National Organization for Women had been founded by Betty Friedan in 1966, and women across North America became vocal in their push for social and legal equality with men. Atwood became a leading voice in Canadian feminism. In 1971, after living in Europe for a year, Atwood moved to Toronto to teach literature and creative writing at York University. That year her book of verse, Power Politics, was published and her public visibility increased. Critics felt uncomfortable with the seemingly anti-male attitude of some of Power Politics, and the book produced a great deal of controversy—which raised Atwood’s profile.
New Life on an Ontario Farm. The years 1972 to 1976 were eventful for Atwood. She published another novel, Surfacing, in 1972. That same year, she became writer in residence at the University of Toronto, published the controversial Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, and separated from her husband. Soon afterward, she moved to a seventy-acre farm near Alliston, Ontario, with novelist Graeme Gibson and wrote the book of verse, You Are Happy (1974), which was awarded the Bess Hopkins Prize by Poetry magazine. Soon after her divorce from her first husband was finalized, Atwood and Gibson had a daughter, Jess. Atwood’s short stories began appearing in magazines while she labored over her next novel, Lady Oracle (1976). She managed to produce, in 1978, both a children’s book, Up in the Tree, and a new volume of poetry, Two Headed Poems. In that year, she also won the St. Lawrence Award for Fiction.
Real Threats Ficitonalized in A Handmaid’s Tale. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Atwood’s interest in women’s rights remained keen. The movement was dealt a setback in 1982 when the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would have made sex discrimination illegal in the United States, failed to gain ratification despite ten years of lobbying and demonstrations by women. Around the same time, various groups who opposed the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade (1973), which had legalized abortion, began campaigns of intimidation and violence against women seeking abortions and doctors performing them. Disturbed by what she considered serious threats to women’s rights, Atwood wrote her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopic story in which fundamentalist Christians have taken over the United States and relegated women to wholly subservient roles.
Continued Focus on the Lives of Women. Since the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, which went on to become a best seller and a 1990 major motion picture, Atwood has achieved prominent stature in Canadian letters. Her work in the 1990s focused increasingly on the complicated relationships between women. The Robber Bride (1993), for example, features several friends whose lives are complicated not by male domination but by an aggressively self-centered woman. Atwood won the Man Booker Prize in 2000 for her novel, The Blind Assassin. The novel features a multilayered narrative with interweaving story lines that highlight Atwood’s continued interest in the various social systems that support male domination of women. Atwood gave voice to the silent women of ancient myth in her 2005 work The Penelopiad, a retelling of the Greek myth of the homecoming of the hero Odysseus told from the point of view of his wife Penelope and her twelve handmaidens.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Atwood's famous contemporaries include:
Anthony Burgess (1917-1993): A prolific writer and critic, Burgess is perhaps best remembered for his mediation on the nature of evil, A Clockwork Orange (1962), for which he developed a whole new slang language for his futuristic criminals.
Richard Nixon (1913-1994): Thirty-seventh president of the United States and thirty-sixth vice president (under Dwight Eisenhower), Nixon was elected to two terms beginning in 1968 but resigned in 1971 before completing his second term under a cloud of suspicion of criminal activity related to the Watergate scandal.
Anne Rice (1941- ): Best-selling author of Gothic fantasy novels, including her famous Vampire Chronicles as well as religious and erotic works. Her recurring themes across all of these genres focus on love, death, immortality, and redemption.
Norma McCorvey (1947- ): Known better by her legal pseudonym of ''Jane Roe,'' McCorvey found herself at the center of the legal firestorm known as the Roe v. Wade case, which overturned the criminalization of abortion in 1973.
Margaret Drabble (1939- ): English novelist, biographer, and critic, Drabble has published seventeen novels to date, including The Millstone (1965), which earned her the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1966.
Works in Literary Context
Presenting the poet as both performer and creator, Atwood questioned the authenticity of the writing process and the effects of literature on both the writer and the reader. Although all of her verse explores the uniqueness of the Canadian psyche, it was in The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) that Atwood devoted her attention to what she calls the schizoid, double nature of Canada. Centered on the narratives of a Canadian pioneer woman, Journals examines why Canadians came to develop ambivalent feelings toward their country. Atwood further developed this dichotomy in Power Politics (1971), in which she explored the relationship between sexual roles and power structures by focusing on personal relationships and international politics. Her examination of destructive sex roles and her nationalistic concern over the subordinate role Canada plays to the United States are variations on the victor/ victim theme that continue to dominate her work.
Nationalism. In addition to her numerous collections of poetry, Atwood earned widespread attention for Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), a seminal critical analysis of Canadian literature that served as a rallying point for the country’s cultural nationalists. In Survival, Atwood argues that Canadians have always viewed themselves as victims, both of the forces of nature that confronted them as they settled in wilderness territory and of the colonialist powers that dominated their culture and politics. She proposed that Canadian writers should cultivate a more positive self-image by embracing indigenous traditions, including those of Native Americans and French Canadians, rather than identifying with Great Britain or the United States. Atwood’s youthful experience in the wilderness of Quebec likely gave her an appreciation for the uniquely Canadian features of her country, and inspired her nationalist vision.
Feminism. The title of Atwood’s first collection of short fiction, Dancing Girls (1977), refers to the leading characters in the stories—women who obligingly accept the roles assigned to them by male-dominated society rather than following their own desires. This volume, which is considered more pessimistic in outlook than Atwood’s earlier works, contains pointed observations concerning patriarchal social systems and emotionally withdrawn males. The protagonists of these short stories are intelligent, urbane, and alienated from their social environment. Sometimes this alienation emerges as psychosis, such as the schizophrenia experienced by Louise in ‘‘Polarities.’’ Commentators note that several of the stories in this volume reflect the theories of psychologist R. D. Laing, who regarded schizophrenia as an understandable reaction to irrational conditions created by modern society. Louise, hospitalized for psychotic behavior, is portrayed as being fundamentally in touch with reality, while her ostensibly ‘‘normal’’ friend Morrison is dismayed by his own moral shortcomings. As in most of Atwood’s short stories, the female is depicted as intuitive, life-affirming, and allied with nature, while the male stands for violence, oppression, and artificial values.
Atwood turned to speculative fiction with her novel The Handmaid’s Tale. In this work she created the dystopia of Gilead, a future America in which fundamentalist Christians have imposed dictatorial rule. Here, in a world polluted by toxic chemicals and nuclear radiation, most women are sterile; those who are able to bear children are forced to become ‘‘Handmaids,’’ official breeders who enjoy some privileges yet remain under constant surveillance. Almost all other women have been deemed expendable, except those who embrace the repressive religious hierarchy run by men. Although Atwood’s strong feminist beliefs were evident in her previous novels, The Handmaid’s Tale is the first of her works to be dominated by feminist concerns.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Much of Atwood's work is concerned with feminist themes. Whether she is writing about patriarchal social systems in subtle ways or exposing the repressive nature of sexism more pointedly, Atwood's fiction consistently reveals the author's strong feminist beliefs. Here are some more works that deal with feminist themes:
Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), a novel by Marge Piercy. Like Atwood, Piercy writes poetry and fiction with a feminist bent. This novel tells the story of a timetraveling psychiatric patient at Bellevue Hospital.
The Feminine Mystique (1963), a nonfiction work by Betty Friedan. Analyzing the frustrations of women at the time, this book served as the flash point of the modern feminist movement.
Orlando (1928), a novel by Virginia Woolf. A story that explores concepts of gender and how it impacts an individual's experience of life across time.
The Awakening (1899), a novel by Kate Chopin. This novel revolves around its female protagonist's ultimately tragic attempts to define her individuality in the stiflingly rigid society of the turn of the twentieth century.
Works in Critical Context
Ann Marie Lipinski, writing in the Chicago Tribune, described Atwood as ‘‘one of the leading literary luminaries, a national heroine of the arts.’’ Atwood’s critical popularity is matched by her popularity with readers. She is a frequent guest on Canadian television and radio, her books are best sellers, and ‘‘people follow her on the streets and in stores,’’ as Judy Klemesrud reported in the New York Times. Atwood, Roy MacGregor of Maclean’s explained, ‘‘is to Canadian literature as Gordon Lightfoot is to Canadian music, more institution than individual.'' Atwood's popularity with both critics and the reading public has surprised her. ‘‘It's an accident that I'm a successful writer,’’ she told MacGregor. ‘‘I think I’m kind of an odd phenomenon in that I’m a serious writer and I never expected to become a popular one, and I never did anything in order to become a popular one.’’
The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale is a radical departure from Atwood’s previous novels. Her strong feminism was evident in earlier books, but The Handmaid’s Tale is dominated by the theme. As Barbara Holliday wrote in the Detroit Free Press, Atwood ‘‘has been concerned in her fiction with the painful psychic warfare between men and women. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ a futuristic satire, she casts subtlety aside, exposing woman’s primal fear of being used and helpless.’’ Atwood’s creation of an imaginary world is also new. As Mary Battiata noted in the Washington Post, The Handmaid’s Tale is the first of Atwood’s novels ‘‘not set in a worried corner of contemporary Canada.’’ Many critics favorably compare The Handmaid’s Tale with George Orwell’s 1984 and other distinguished dystopian novels for its disturbing extension of contemporary trends and its allegorical portrait of political extremism.
Atwood’s Poetry. Linda W. Wagner, writing in The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism, asserted that in Atwood’s poetry ‘‘duality [is] presented as separation.’’ This separation leads her characters to be isolated from one another and from the natural world, resulting in their inability to communicate, to break free of exploitative social relationships, or to understand their place in the natural order. ‘‘In her early poetry,’’ Gloria Onley wrote in the West Coast Review, ‘‘[Atwood] is acutely aware of the problem of alienation, the need for real human communication and the establishment of genuine human community—real as opposed to mechanical or manipulative; genuine as opposed to the counterfeit community of the body politic.’’ Speaking of The Circle Game, Wagner wrote that ‘‘the personae of those poems never did make contact, never did anything but lament the human condition.... Relationships in these poems are sterile if not destructive.’’
Suffering is common for the female characters in Atwood’s poems, although they are never passive victims. In more recent works, they take active measures to improve their situations. Atwood’s poems, the West Coast Review’s Onley maintained, concern ‘‘modern woman’s anguish at finding herself isolated and exploited (although also exploiting) by the imposition of a sex role power structure.’’ Atwood explained to Klemesrud in the New York Times that her suffering characters come from real life: ‘‘My women suffer because most of the women I talk to seem to have suffered.’’ By the early 1970s, this stance had made Atwood into ‘‘a cult author to faithful feminist readers,’’ as the Chicago Tribune’s Lipinski commented. Atwood's popularity in the feminist community was unsought. ‘‘I began as a profoundly apolitical writer,’’ she told Lindsy Van Gelder of Ms., ‘‘but then I began to do what all novelists and some poets do: I began to describe the world around me.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Discuss the feminist themes in Atwood’s work. How does she address such issues as the myths of femininity, women's need for self-fulfillment, their place in society, and their relationships with each other and with men?
2. Atwood’s fiction often deals with the theme of treachery. Discuss two scenes in her work that depict treachery. Why do you think Atwood is so interested in exploring this particular topic?
3. Margaret Atwood’s stories often show women coping with the restrictions placed on them by a male- dominated society. Using your dictionary and the Internet, write out a working definition of the word ‘‘patriarchy.’’ Can you think of any evidence that ours is a patriarchal society? Now imagine matriarchal, or woman-dominated, society. What might it be like and how would it differ from our own?
4. Research and write about the differences between Canadian and American society. How does Atwood's views of Americans come through in her stories?
5. Margaret Atwood wrote a poem called ‘‘Siren Song’’ in 1976. What is the mythological origin of the term siren song? How does the mythology relate to Atwood's poem?
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Stevens, Peter. ‘‘Explorer/Settler/Poet.’’ In DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
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_______, ed. ‘‘Surfacing.’’ In Novels for Students. Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale, 2002.