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by Bamber Gascoigne

Margaret (Eleanor) Atwood (1939-)


Canadian poet, novelist, and critic, noted for her feminism and mythological themes. Margaret Atwood's work has been regarded as a barometer of feminist thought. Her protagonists are often a kind of "everywoman" characters, or weaker members of society. Several of Atwood's novels can be classified as science fiction, although her writing is above the normal formulae of the genre.

"You have good bones, they used to say, and I paid no attention. What did I care about good bones, then? I was more concerned with what was covering them. I was more concerned with lust, and pimples. The bones were backdrop. " (in Good Bones, 1992)

Margared Atwood was born in Ottawa, Canada, the second of three children. He father, Carl Atwood, was a forest entomologist, and her mother, Margaret Killam, a nutritionist. Part of her early years Atwood spent in the bush of northern Quebec, where her father undertook research. "Certainly writing and art were not the foremost topics of daily conversation in Canada when I was born - in 1939, two and a half months after the outbreak of World War II", Atwood has said. "People had other things on their minds, and even if they hadn't, they wouldn't have been thinking about writers." Later Atwood's childhood experiences gave material to her metaphorical use of the wilderness and its animals in Wilderness Tips (1991). Since her childhood, Atwood has been fond of cats; felines have found their way into her stories as well. In the fable 'Our Cat Enters Heaven' in The Tent (2006) God is conceived as a cat with elegant long whiskers. "Meow, said God."

In 1946 Atwood's family moved to Toronto, the scene of several of her works. Atwood started to attended school full-time at the age of eleven. After graduating from Leaside High School in 1959, Atwood studied at the University of Toronto, where she met the literary critic Northrop Fry; his myth criticism and Jungian ideas influenced her deeply. She won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, and became a graduate student at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, receiving her M.A. in 1962. Atwood continued her studies of Victorian literature at Harvard (1962-63, 1965-67), reading for Ph.D., but interrupted her studies in 1967 after having failed to complete her dissertation on 'The English Metaphysical Romance.' For a period she worked for a market-research company in Toronto and taught English at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver (1964-65). Atwood has held a variety of academic posts and has been writer-in-residence at numerous Canadian and American universities. In 1967, she married James Polk, an American postgraduate student at Harvard; they divorced in 1973. Atwood had a daughter with the novelist Graeme Gibson, who died in September 2019. Dearly: New Poems (2020) was dedicated to her partner of more than 40 years: "For Graeme, in absentia". 

As a writer Atwood made her debut at the age of 19 with Double Persephone (1961), a collection of poems on the mythologigal figure of Persephone. Her privately printed book won the E.J. Pratt medal. Another early collection, The Circle Game (1964, rev. in 1966), marked by Gothic imagery, received the Canadian Governor General's Award for poetry in 1966.

While working as an editor at the Toronto publishing house Anansi in the early 1970s, Atwood published her controversial study Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972). For scholars Atwood's tongue-in-cheek humour was hard to swallow, especially when she asserted that Canadian literature has remained blighted by subservient, colonial mentality. She returned to the theme in Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (1995). Atwood searched for the "fabled Canadian identity", stating that "Canadians are fond of a good disaster, especially if it has ice, water, or snow in it. You thought the national flag was about a leaf, didn't you? Look harder. It's where someone got axed in the snow."

Atwood's early feminist treatise, The Edible Woman (1969), was both funny and terrifying story about a young woman, who works for a consumer company, and stops eating after becoming engaged. The Handmaid's Tale (1985) was a dystopia, influenced by Orwell's classic 1984. Atwood started writing the book in 1984, continued with it in the divided Berlin and finished the work in deeply conservative Alabama.

The story is set in the near future USA in the Republic of Gilead, a state ruled by religious fundamentalism. All the freedoms women have gained are revoked and language is forbidden to all but the male élite. The narrator, Offred, is a "handmaid", valued for her ovaries. She is one of the few women whose reproductive systems have survived the chemical pollution and radiation from power plants. At the end she gets into a van that will either take her "into the darkness within; or else the light." Although Offred's fate is left uncertain in the novel, an epilogue narrated by a professor delivering a lecture in 2195 implies that Gilead eventually collapses.

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States boosted the sales of the book, which topped Amazon's bestseller list in 2017. Atwood has said that The Handmaid's Tale was inspired by her studies of the 17th-century puritan values. Trump has been criticized for his degrading remarks towards women. 

Following the critical  success of the TV adaptation, Atwood began to toy seriously with the idea of writing a sequel. However, this long-awaited work, entitled The Testaments (2019), set 15 years after Offred's final scene, is not connected to the television series.

In Volker Schlöndorff's film version from 1990 the protagonist, Kate / Offred, becomes an active revolutionary who finally cuts the throat of her owner. However, in Atwood's book Offred's weapon is irony and keen observation - she keeps a secret diary. Moreover, Atwood often uses a first-person narrator, whose pespective is limited. "I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There's a lot that doesn't bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last." (in The Handmaid's Tale) The tale is interspersed with flashbacks to her earlier life, when she had a husband, Luke, a 5-year-old daughter, and was allowed to read. The screenplay was written by Harold Pinter, who invented a new ending to show her strength of will and courage to resist oppression. At the time Pinter was writing the script he had a number of other tasks, and could not develop it further. He suggested that Schlöndorff consult with Atwood about changes and revisions. Dissatisfied with the final shooting script Pinter even thought that he would not publish the screenplay.

Bruce Miller's television adaptation based on the novel, which premiered in April 2017, won five Emmy awards including Outstanding Drama Series, and the 2018 Golden Globe for Best TV Series in the Drama category. Atwood served as a consulting producer on the series. Due to Miller's decision to place the story closer to the present day, Atwood had one of most intense conversations with the production team. Moreover, the novel had only white characters. "I wanted our audience to be able to relate to the world of the show," Miller argued, "and to exclude people of color is leaving so much of our audience out." ('Balm Gilead?' by Anna Menta, Newsweek, 11.05.2018, p. 43) The second season went  further beyond the confines of the book.

Reflecting the huge following of the TV show, the most fashionable protesters across the world have dressed in the Handmaid's Tale costumes, the red cloaks and white bonnets, as a symbol of female oppression. Atwood herself was not involved in developing the costumes. They were designed by Ane Crabtree, who took her inspiration from various sources. "The dress shape came from a knit dress that everyone was wearing when I was at school in the Eighties, but the fluidity was inspired by a priest I sketched in the Duomo di Milano in 2001." ('The Handmaid’s Tale Costume Designer On Dressing Margaret Atwood’s Dystopia' by Alice Newbold, Vogue, 16 Jul 2017)

In Cat's Eye (1989) Atwood exchanged the futuristic world of Gilead for the real world, which however  is also very puritanical and rigid. The story tells of a Canadian painter, Elaine, who returns to Toronto and explorers her lost childhood. The title of the book comes from her self-portrait, called 'Unified Field Theory,' in which she holds a cat's eye marble with a blue center.  Cats see better than humans at night; Elaine tries to see through the darkness of forgotten memories into her own life. "It is a novel of images, nightmarish, evocative, heartbreaking and mundane, that taken together offer us not a retrospective but an addition: a new work entirely and Margaret Atwood's most emotionally engaging fiction thus far." ('What Little Girls Are Made Of' by Alice McDermott, The New York Times, February 5, 1989) Alias Grace (1996) used a genuine 19th-century criminal case of Grace Marks, one of the most notorious women in Canada. Grace, a servant, was imprisoned in 1843, at the age of sixteen, for almost 30 years as an accomplice to the murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear and his mistress, the housekeeper Nancy. Her guilt was never incontrovertibly established, but she raised the interest of journalists and researches. Before she was arrested, she had escaped with another servant, James McDermott to the United States. Atwood first found her story from Life in the Clearings (1853) by Susanna Moodie. "A lot of what is written down is either wishful thinking or spiteful gossip," Atwood has said.

The Blind Assassin (2000) was about two sisters, one of whom, Laura Chase, dies in a car accident in 1945 under ambiguous circumstances. Two years later the body of Richard E. Griffen, a prominent industrialist, is found dead. And in 1975 Aimee Griffen dies of a broken neck. The only person who knows the circumstances behind these deaths is Iris Chase Griffen, Laura's elder sister, Richard's wife, Aimee's mother. The richly layered story then continues as a postmodern novel-within-a-novel, using an excerpt from Laura Chase's novella, The Blind Assassin, posthumously published in 1947. It deals with an affair between a wealthy young woman and her lover, a radical on the run for. "I look back back over what I've written and I know it's wrong, not because of what I've set down, but because of what I've omitted. What isn't there has a presence, like the absence of light." Much of the action consists of a fantasy, improvised by the man, in which child carpet weavers, blinded by the work, find new work as assassins. Atwood's novel earned her in 2000 the Booker Prize, Britain's top literary award for fiction.

Atwood's fiction is often symbolic. She has moved easily between satire and fantasy, and enlarged the boundaries of traditional realism. Her first and third novels were comic, the fourth, Life Before Man (1979), presented a bleak, harsh view of human life in which marriage is a wanishing way of life.

Oryx and Crake (2003) was a love triangle set in the near-future world, where human beings have all but destroyed the planet. "Yet for all Atwood's imaginative powers, her meticulous research, her clever literary allusions to Defoe, Swift and H G Wells, and her satire, this is an unsatisfactory novel which fails to engage the reader fully." (Catherine Pepinster in The Independent, 1 June 2003) Some reviewers labelled the work as science fiction, but Atwood herself considered it speculative fiction. "Had I written it 20 years ago, I would have called it science fiction," she said in an interview, "but now it's speculative fiction, believe me." There is no happy future for the humankind Atwood also predicts in The Year of the Flood (2009), set in an apocalyptic landscape of Oryx and Crake. Atwood's dystopian trilogy concluded with MaddAddam (2013).

Atwood has been politically active in PEN International and in Amnesty International. She has lived since 1973 on a farm near Alliston, Ontario, with the writer Graeme Gibson and their daughter. Atwood has been appointed Honorary Doctor at several universities worldwide. In 1993 she was named Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts and des Lettres by Government of France. The 2019 Booker Prize – and the prize money of £50,000 – was split between Margaret Atwood for The Testament and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other. According to the rules of Great Britain's most prestigious literary award, the prize "may not be divided or withheld".

For further reading: Violent Duality: A Study of Margaret Atwood by S. Grace (1979); The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in criticism, ed. by A.E. Davidson and C.N. Davidson (1980); Margaret Atwood: Language, Text and System, ed. by S. Grace and L. Weir (1983) ; Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics by F. Davey (1984); Margaret Atwood by J. Rosenberg (1984); Romantic Imprisonment by Nina Auerbach (1985); Margaret Atwood by Jerome H. Rosenberg (1984); Margaret Atwood by Barbara Hill Rigney (1987); Critical Essays on Margaret Arwood, ed. by I. McCombs (1988); Margaret Atwood: Conversations, ed. by Earl Ingersoll (1990); Strategies fo Identity by Eleonora Rao (1993); Margret Atwood: Writing and Subjectivity, ed. by Colin Nicholson (1994); Margaret Atwood by Coral Ann Howells (1996); Margaret Atwood: A Biography by Nathalie Cooke (1998) Margaret Atwood Revisited by Karen F. Stein (1999); The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood by Coral Ann Howells (2006); Margaret Atwood's Apocalypses, edited by Karma Waltonen (2015); Margaret Atwood's Voices and Representations: from Poetry to Tweets by Christine Evain (2015); Margaret Atwood, Crime Fiction Writer: the Reworking of a Popular Genre by Jackie Shead (2015); Comparative North American Studies: Transnational Approaches to American and Canadian Literature and Culture by Reingard M. Nischik (2016); Apocalyptic Fiction by Andrew Tate (2017); The Fiction of Margaret Atwood by Fiona Tolan (2022) 

Selected works:

  • Double Persephone, 1961
  • The Circle Game, 1964 (Governor-General's Award)
  • Kaleidoscopes Baroque: A Poem, 1965
  • Talismans for Children, 1965
  • Expeditions, 1966
  • Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein, 1966
  • The Animals in That Country, 1968
  • The Edible Woman, 1969
  • The Journals of Susanna Moodie: Poems by Margaret Atwood, 1970
  • Procedures for Underground, 1970
  • Power Politics, 1971
  • Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, 1972
  • Surfacing, 1972
    - Yli veden (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1986)
    - film 1981, screenplay Bernard Gordon, dir. Claude Jutra, starring Joseph Bottoms, Kathleen Beller, R.H. Thomson, Margaret Dragu, Michael Ironside, Larry Schwartz   
  • You Are Happy, 1974
  • The Servant Girl, 1974 (television script)
  • Selected Poems, 1976
  • Lady Oracle, 1976
    - Rouva Oraakkeli (suom. Marja Haapio)
  • Dancing Girls, 1977
  • Marsh, Hawk, 1977
  • Days of the Rebels: 1815–1840, 1977
  • Up in the Tree, 1978
  • Two-Headed Poems, 1978
  • Life Before Man, 1979
    - Kivettyneet leikit (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1981)
  • Anna's Pet, 1980 (with Joyce C. Barkhouse; illustrated by Ann Blades)
  • True Stories, 1981
  • Snowbird, 1981 (television script)
  • Notes Towards a Poem That Can Never Be Written, 1981
  • Bodily Harm, 1981
    - Lievää vakavampi (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1982)
  • The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, 1982 (chosen and with an introduction by Margaret Atwood)
  • Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1982
  • Encounters with the Element Man, 1982
  • Bluebeard's Egg, 1983
    - Siniparran muna (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1988)
  • Unearthing Suite, 1983 (short story)
  • Love Songs of a Terminator, 1983
  • Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems, 1983
  • Snake Poems, 1983
  • Interlunar, 1984
  • The Handmaid's Tale, 1985 (Governor General's Award)
    - Orjattaresi (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1986)
    - film 1990, prod. Bioskop Film, Cinecom Entertainment Group, Cinétudes Films, dir. Volker Schlöndorff, script by Harold Pinter, starring Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth McGovern; opera Tjenerindens Fortælling (2000), composed by Poul Ruders. "It's basically a novel about, and warning against, any form of intolerance - and then of course it's a manifest, a cry of anger at the oppression of women." (Poul Ruders) TV series 2017-, directors: Reed Morano, Mike Barker, starring Elisabeth Moss (Offred), Joseph Fiennes (The Commander), Max Minghella (Nick), Yvonne Strahovski, Samira Wiley
  • Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 1976-1986, 1986
  • Heaven on Earth, 1986 (tv script; with P. Pearson)
  • The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English, 1986 (ed.)
  • Through the One-Way Mirror, 1986
  • The Canlit Foodbook: A Collection of Tasty Literary Fare, 1987 (compiled and illustrated by Margaret Atwood)
  • Cat's Eye, 1988
    - Kissansilmä (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1989)
  • The Best American Short Stories 1989, 1989 (ed. with S. Ravenell)
  • For the Birds, 1990 (with Shelly Tanaka)
  • Wilderness Tips and Other Stories, 1991
  • Good Bones, 1992
  • The Robber Bride, 1993
    - Ryövärimorsian (suom. Kristiina Drews, 1994)
    - TV movie 2007, prod. Shaftesbury Films, WTTV,  teleplay Tassie Cameron, dir. David Evans, starring Mary-Louise Parker, Shawn Doyle, Susan Lynch, Wendy Crewson  
  • Good Bones and Simple Murders, 1994
  • Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut, 1995 (illustrated by Maryann Kovalski) 
  • Morning in the Burned House, 1995
  • Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature, 1995
  • The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English, 1995 (selected by Margaret Atwood & Robert Weaver)
  • Alias Grace, 1996
    - Nimeltään Grace (suom. Kristiina Drews, 1997)
  • The Labrador Fiasco, 1996
  • A Quiet Game: And Other Early Works, 1997 (edited and annotated by Kathy Chung and Sherrill Grace, with an introduction by Sherrill Grace and illustrations by Kathy Chung)
  • Eating Fire: Selected Poetry 1965-1995, 1998
    - Myös sinun nimesi (suom. Tero Valkonen, 2001; kokoelmista Interlunar, Poems 1976-1986, Eating Fire)
  • The Blind Assassin, 2000 (Booker Prize)
    - Sokea surmaaja (suom. Hanna Tarkka, 2000) 
  • Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, 2002
  • Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes, 2003 (illustrated by Dušan Petričić)
  • Oryx & Crake, 2003
    - Oryx ja Crake (suom. Kristiina Drews, 2003)
  • Moving Targets: Writing with Intent, 1982–2004, 2004
  • The Penelopiad, 2005
    - Penelopeia (suom. Kristiina Drews, 2005)
  • Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose, 1983-2005 , 2005
  • The Tent, 2006
  • Waltzing Again: New and Selected Conversations with Margaret Atwood, 2006 (edited by Earl G. Ingersoll)
  • Moral Disorder, 2006 - Poikkeustila (suom Kristiina Drews, 2007)
  • Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda, 2006 (illustrated by Dušan Petričić)
  • The Door, 2007
  • Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, 2008
    - Velka ja vaurauden varjopuoli (suom. Petri Stenman, 2009)
  • The Year of the Flood, 2009
    - Herran tarhurit (suom. Kristiina Drews, 2010)
  • In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, 2011
  • Wandering Wenda and Widow Wallop’s Wunderground Washery, 2011 (illustrated by Dušan Petričić)
  • Selected Stories, 2012
  • I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth, 2012
  • MaddAddam, 2013
    - Uusi maa (suom. Kristiina Drews, 2015)
  • Stone Mattress, 2014
  • The Heart Goes Last, 2015
    - Viimeisenä pettää sydän (suom. Hilkka Pekkanen, 2020) 
  • Angel Catbird, 2016 (graphic novel, illustrated by Johnnie Christmas)
  • Hag-seed: The Tempest Retold, 2016
    - Noidan sikiö: Shakespearen Myrsky omin sanoin (suom. Kristiina Drews, 2019)
  • The Burgess Shale: the Canadian Writing Landscape of the 1960s, 2017 
  • A Trio of Tolerable Tale, 2017 (illustrations by Dusan Petricic)
  • The Handmaid's Tale, 2017 (with a new introduction by the author)
  • Power Politics, 2018 
  • The Complete Angel Catbird, 2018 (story by Margaret Atwood; art by Johnnie Christmas; colors by Tamra Bonvillain; letters by Nate Piekos of Blambot)
  • The Testaments: A Novel, 2019 (The Handmaid's Tale)
    - Testamentit (suom. Hilkka Pekkanen, 2019)
  • Dearly: New Poems, 2020
    - Kipeästi (suom. Hilkka Pekkanen, 2023)
  • On Cats: An Anthology, 2021 (introduction)
  • Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004 to 2021, 2022
  • Old Babes in the Wood, 2023 (short stories)

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