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||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).
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.
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. The story 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. The book was filmed in 1990 by Volker Schlöndorff from a screenplay by Harold Pinter. In the film version the protagonist becomes an active revolutionary who finally cuts the throat of her owner. However, in Atwood's book the events are seen through the eyes of the main character, whose 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.
Cat's Eye (1989) told of a painter who explorers her childhood memories. 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 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.
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)